Are American Voters Dumber Than They Were In 1852?


I have been engaged in a very interesting comment section debate here on PM this morning. Basically, the debate revolves around the critical thinking and literacy skills of Americans today compared to 1850. My adversary claims that Americans are in the 99.6% literacy range and therefore much better equipped to think critically. Meanwhile, I contend that his data is faulty (mainly because it was from 1979 and published in 1992). I did some investigation on the most recent data I could round up quickly and decided to share my findings with you. For the cherry on top, we’ll compare literacy to voting tendencies. Unfortunately, less than 40% of you will be able to fully comprehend the entire article and the data that I am about to spill. Sorry, I didn't make the number – it is what it is.

Renowned educator and compulsory education critic, John Taylor Gatto states that "Abundant data exist from states like Connecticut and Massachusetts to show that by 1840 the incidence of complex literacy in the United States was between 93 and 100 percent." Massachusetts implemented the first compulsory education system in the U.S. in 1852. Fifth grade math books in the state at that time would be equivalent to a college level text today, according to Mr. Gatto. In 1850, functional literacy was at an all time high of 97%. By 1993, it was below 70%.

In 2002, the National Center for Education Statistics published a report on literacy in America. The results were staggering. According to the survey, 22% of Americans performed at a Level 1 on the three scales – prose, document, and quantitative. That means that some 42 million Americans "displayed the ability to read relatively short pieces of text to find a single piece of information," or were able to enter some personal information such as their name or social security number into a form. Some were even "able to add up numbers on a bank deposit slip." Others in this group, however, were unable to perform any of the tasks or even to complete the survey.

An additional 54 million Americans performed at Level 2. These people demonstrated the ability to read simple text and make low-level inferences based upon what they had read. They were also likely to give correct answers to a single math problem.

In contrast, only 40 million Americans perform at higher literacy levels indicated by Level 4 or Level 5. These people are able to read dense literature and draw complex conclusions and inferences. They are also able to perform more advanced mathematical operations. Of those 40 million, only 6-8 million performed at Level 5.

That means that nearly 100 million Americans performed at substandard literacy levels. These people are able only to read and comprehend short news articles on their best days! Of those 100 million people, 56% voted in a national election between 1988 and 1993. To put that in perspective, in 1992, 105 million Americans voted, and in 1988, only 92 million voted. Let’s just say that half of those 56 million substandard readers voted in either election. That means that as many as 30% of the voters in 1988 were unable to read at an average level of comprehension! That same number would put the 1992 election at around 25% below average literacy levels.

Let that soak in – as high as one in three voters are unable to comprehend the very news they depend upon for their voting decisions when forced to read it. Conversely, around 85% of Americans reading at Level 4 or Level 5 voted in the same elections. Unfortunately, they only represent 20% of the population.

Luckily for our dumbed-down Americans, in 1987 Baby Jessica McClure fell down a well, and CNN covered it front to back. Why was that important? It gave the young news station credibility among the masses, and now Americans would start getting their political news from the television rather than print. According to the NCES, around one third of those performing at Level 2 or below got some of their news from print. Among those at Level 4 and above, nearly 60% got their news from print every day. To no one’s surprise, Rush Limbaugh became a radio hit in 1988. Americans were getting lazy. With the explosion of 24 hour television and radio political news, they no longer needed to research candidates; they simply voted for whomever they were told to vote.

According to the data, as your wages decrease from 70k annually or so, you become infinitely more likely to vote for a Democrat. This seems easy enough to understand, right? I mean, we've all been told that the Democrat is the blue collar party. They are working to take care of the working man. Similarly, 50% of American adults make well below the poverty level because of their inability to read proficiently. When looking at these two statistics, it seems reasonable to me that lower reading levels equals lower income equals Democratic voters.

There really is no way to spin that. It explains why voters are so in love with Obama. His national health care and increased welfare policies resonate with low income voters.  

Today, we scour sites like the Huffington Post, PolicyMic, Politico, and many others in an effort to find some semblance of truth and reality. The problem is that most of us simply can’t comprehend the difference between reality and fiction. It is the reason that so many people post memes on their social networks without fact checking. They simply believe whatever they see, because they aren't capable of comprehending any differently.

When I was in high school, many of my teachers encouraged critical thinking, but none more than John Bramlet, my U.S. history, world history, and current events teacher. I returned to my old school system some 10 years ago and found the rural school in a significantly reduced state of intelligence. I found today that the school holds an academic rank of 719 out of 775 Illinois schools. In 1993, when I graduated with 43 students, I was 6th in my class in GPA and I placed 8th in Illinois in academic competitions for my English skills. We had several students finish top three in multiple categories and a few that even won the physics, chemistry, and trigonometry competitions!

The degradation of the public school system over just 10 years was stunning. Imagine what has happened over the last 160! If we don’t make changes soon, we will not continue as a world leader. Mark these words.