News IQ, Education & Politics

I just took the Pew News IQ Test.  I surprised myself by getting 9 out of 12 right.  My results apparently mean I’m more well informed than 78% of Americans.  I don’t know if that is true because the test is rather short and limited.  It basically is only testing for factoids which I generally don’t test well on, but the multiple answer format allowed me to make educated guesses on a few questions. 

I’m more well informed about socio-historical context (poll data and demographics, history of ideas and movements, etc) and I think socio-historical context is more important than specific factoids.  Any motivated person of reasonable intelligence can look up a factoid, but understanding socio-historical context takes years and decades of wide-ranging study.  Memorizing factoids is less relevant in this age of search engines and Wikipedia.

I’ve seen different surveys over the years that show different groups as being most well informed about news and politics.  At one time, Rush Limbaugh’s audience was one of the most well informed about politics.  I think a later survey showed that Jon Stewarts audience was the most well informed.  The ironic part is that neither Limbaugh or Stewart are news reporters.  I took the Pew Political Typology Test a while ago, and I tested as a Liberal (59% Democrat; 40% Independent/No Preference, 1% Republican) which I felt proud of because it’s the mostly highly educated group and one of the top groups in following the news.  Related to this Liberal demographic, I’ve mentioned a number times recently the fact that most scientists identify as Democrat or Independent which means they’d probably fit into this Pew-defined category of Liberal.

My point for bringing up those examples is that I’m not sure what it ultimately means.  Does it matter whether Limbaugh’s conservative audience or Stewart’s liberal audience is the most well informed about news factoids?  A better measure would be how well people understand the context of those factoids, and I think general education would be a better measure of the larger context of knowledge.  The ideal of the liberal college education was that it gave you a broad range of knowledge and so made you a well informed citizen.  If every citizen could be made to memorize some basic factoids, it would probably be a good thing… but would it really create a well informed citizenry (and would it increase rational, thoughtful, and insightful public debate)?  Without knowledge of the history of culture and ideas, without knowledge of the social sciences and the physical sciences, how can one understand the larger meaning of news factoids?  Without having learned philosophy, logic, and critical thinking skills, how can the public analyze the news, look past the spin, and gain deeper insight?

Many conservatives argue that the education system is biased towards the liberal and some even believe the world is ruled by an intellectual liberal elite conspiracy.  Even ignoring the conspiracy theories, I don’t see any evidence that liberals are controlling education in any obvious way.  It’s just as likely (or even maybe more likely) that being well educated makes it more probable that one will lean towards liberal values.  A major liberal value is trying to understand from multiple perspectives (which moral conservatives dismiss as relativism).  Another liberal value is the ideal of ideological neutrality (whether or not such a thing is possible) when assessing data (whereas moral conservatives take pride in openly embracing ideology).  This is why liberal reporters have the tendency to always give equal time to both sides of any disagreement.   And this is why a Republican scientist is so rare.

Recent poll data I’ve looked at shows that the American public leans towards Progressive values and the demographics show a shift towards liberalism on many issues.  I’d be curious how this correlates to levels of higher education and general knowledge.  In the last half century, the number of college graduates has increased and so I wonder if that relates to the increase of liberalism.  Also, I wonder if an increase in higher education has led to an increase of general knowledge and specifically political knowledge.  College education has become even more important than it was in the past because there are fewer working class jobs available.  Because of this, college has become more of a career path and so has strayed from it’s original liberal education purpose.  If college was refocused on creating well informed citizens and if more people went to college, would this mean that America would become even more liberal?

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