Socrates in Jeopardyland

Nov 20, 2008 10:59am

Get a hard seat, a bright light, and ponder these questions:

13. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas would concur that:
a. all moral and political truth is relative to one’s time and place
b. moral ideas are best explained as material accidents or byproducts of evolution
c. values originating in one’s conscience cannot be judged by others
d. Christianity is the only true religion and should rule the state
e. certain permanent moral and political truths are accessible to human reason

27. Free markets typically secure more economic prosperity than government’s centralized planning because:
a. the price system utilizes more local knowledge of means and ends
b. markets rely upon coercion, whereas government relies upon voluntary compliance with the law
c. more tax revenue can be generated from free enterprise
d. property rights and contracts are best enforced by the market system
e. government planners are too cautious in spending taxpayers’ money

29. A flood-control levee (or national defense) is considered a public good because:
a. citizens value it as much as bread and medicine
b. a resident can benefit from it without directly paying for it
c. government construction contracts increase employment
d. insurance companies cannot afford to replace all houses after a flood
e. government pays for its construction, not citizens

OK, these are from:
a. The latest SAT exam
b. Barack Obama’s vetting packet for prospective Cabinet members
c. A new poll purporting to tell us that Americans are bozos

The answer is “c,” and if your head’s spinning, join the club. 

This little beauty comes from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an outfit that today is releasing its annual survey on “American Civic Literacy.” Its purported result: “The majority of Americans – including elected officials – failed a test of basic knowledge about American history and economics.”

The reality is that the ISI itself has failed a test of basic knowledge about the definition and measurement of just what knowledge is. I’ve blogged about this before – see it here – but the key point is that these folks are confusing knowledge (the ability to draw on information to make considered judgments) with recall (the ability to recite disassociated facts); and then doubling down by using an inappropriate method of measurement.

The headline result in this report says "many Americans thought the phrase ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ came from the U.S. Constitution or Declaration of Independence and not its actual source – Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.” It does not tell us why being able to recite the precise source of this (or any) historical quote is important. The logic, it seems, is that more recall is better than less recall – the Jeopardy school of "knowledge."

Leaving aside that concept – or whether being able to spit back a comparative assessment of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas constitutes “basic knowledge” – just imagine trying to answer these questions in a telephone survey. You have to comprehend the root question, then keep each response option in your head so you can compare and choose. On the phone.

Two thousand five hundred and eight Americans took this survey, answering – I am not kidding – 118 questions. What they got for their trouble was to be excoriated as dumbos. Me, I’d give ’em medals for sheer fortitude. And the booby prize to the perpetrators of this so-called research.

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