Newsweek Writer Blames Lack of 'Centralized Curriculum' for Americans Failing Citizenship Test

Appearing on MSNBC today, Newsweek senior writer Andrew Romano attributed the findings of his magazine's study showing Americans don't understand basic facts about U.S. history to the country's lack of a top-down federal government-imposed curriculum.

When daytime anchor Thomas Roberts asked Romano to explain the significance of the survey, the Daily Beast scribe indicted federalism: "Another reason why we don’t do well is because we don’t have a kind of centralized curriculum in our schools. Everyone in different states kind of learns different things. And that definitely contributes to it as well."

Teeing up the segment, Roberts reminded viewers that Republican presidential contenders Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann have all recently made "public flubs" that "give us pause." He went on to parrot Newsweek's "how dumb are we?" line.

Of course, when the study was first published in March, Romano fingered another pet liberal issue, "income inequality," as the culprit for America's poor performance.

"One of the big ones is income inequality in the United States," professed Romano on the CBS Early Show. "We're one of the most in-equal societies in the developed world."

A transcript of the segment can be found below:

MSNBC
News Live
June 7, 2011

11:20 a.m. EDT

THOMAS ROBERTS: Over the past few weeks, we have watched a number of public figures stumble while trying to recall facts of American history and these little rewrites tend to attract a lot of attention. Take a look.

SARAH PALIN, former Alaska governor: He who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.

HERMAN CAIN, Republican presidential candidate: For the benefit of those that are not going to read it because they don’t want us to go about the Constitution, there’s a little section in there that talks about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Rep. MICHELE BACHMANN, (R-Minn.): What I love about New Hampshire, and what we have in common, is our extreme love for liberty. You’re the state where the shot was heard round the world at Lexington and Concord.

ROBERTS: Alright so in case you were curious, here are the facts. Paul Revere wasn’t warning the British, he was warning the Americans. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is a famous line from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. And the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired in Massachusetts, not New Hampshire. But mistakes, they can be easy to make. And these public flubs give us pause to ask ourselves how much do we really know? Newsweek magazine gave 1,000 Americans the U.S. citizenship test and the results, they’re pretty shocking. Andrew Romano is a senior reporter for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, and he joins me in studio now. Andrew, it’s great to have you here and it’s going to be interesting to find out about these results. As we said, you polled 1,000 people, Newsweek asking how dumb are we? And the numbers really aren’t that good. So break it down for us. Tell us the results and how shocked should we be?

ANDREW ROMANO, Newsweek magazine: Sure. The thing that is really shocking, the topline number, is that 38 percent of people who took the citizenship test failed, which is surprising because these are basic facts about how our civics system works, about U.S. history, the kind of stuff you learn in History 101 in high school. There are a couple of other really shocking facts in there too. The one that really got me is that 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Joe Biden, in case anyone’s wondering.

ROBERTS: Yeah the 29 percent out there that couldn’t get that right are. Alright so where does this American ignorance come from? Is it because we’re not processing and saving what we’re taught in school. Or is it because when we’re talking about our country’s foundational history, but modern history, who the vice president it. Is it because people aren’t keeping up with what’s going on in the world? Picking up a newspaper, turning on the TV set.

ROMANO: Yeah that’s part of it. I mean, one of the big figures is that we have a complicated political system. You know, in Europe their system is a little more compressed and condensed and they tend to do a better on these types of tests than we do. You know, everyone who goes out to the polls knows that they see a whole list of people they have to vote for and they’re not really familiar with these offices. So that’s one reason. Another reason why we don’t do well is because we don’t have a kind of centralized curriculum in our schools. Everyone in different states kind of learns different things. And that definitely contributes to it as well.

ROBERTS: Is that the most problematic aspect, do you think, that’s revealed from doing a test like this, a simple test to prove that out of a thousand people that are polled, that we get results like this? I think that one of these results was that even 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on the calendar? Couldn’t circle July 4th.

ROMANO: That’s pretty surprising. I think the big takeaway from this is that actually polls like this have been going on for years and years, since World War II.

--Alex Fitzsimmons is a News Analysis intern at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow him on Twitter.