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    What America Thinks
    What Makes a 'Bad' American

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, November 30, 1998

    Here's a really, really bad American: A bigot on welfare who doesn't speak English and won't stand up when the national anthem is played at a baseball game.

    At least that's the definition of a bad American that came from a newly released survey of 801 randomly selected parents conducted by the Public Agenda, a nonpartisan and nonprofit research organization.

    The national poll was part of a decidedly serious attempt to measure what parents believe the "United States stands for and what schoolchildren should be taught about its history and ideals." More about the serious stuff later.

    First, the fun. Included in the survey was a question that asked whether a person who did one of 10 ghastly things was a "bad American citizen."

    The number one no-no, at least among those behaviors tested: being on welfare. Three in four – 77 percent – said someone who "lives on government programs like welfare even though they are able to work" is a bad American citizen.

    Nearly as awful was someone who refused to work "with people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds." Seven in 10 said this person was a bad citizen.

    Six in 10 parents said someone who settles in the United States "but never tries to learn English" is a bad American. Nearly as many – 58 percent – cited someone who "makes it a point never to stand up when the national anthem is played during public events like ball games."

    More than half – 56 percent – said good Americans definitely don't believe that communism, not democracy, "is the best political system."

    And just over half said a bad citizen ducks jury duty and is "able to vote but never does."

    But these parents were less critical of Americans who didn't know or didn't care about their country's history or about current events. Fewer than half – 48 percent – said a bad citizen is someone who has "no interest" in important issues facing the country. And slightly more than a third – 36 percent – said a bad citizen "knows virtually nothing about America's history or founding fathers."

    Perhaps our tolerance of ignorance is understandable, if inexcusable. This survey confirmed what polls consistently show: Americans know surprisingly little about history and politics. Even though this survey was conducted in the "midst of congressional proceedings on the issue of impeaching President Clinton, only 40 percent of the general public say – correctly – that impeachment does not mean removal from office, while 42 percent mistakenly believe it does," Public Agenda researchers wrote in their summary of the survey findings.

    What's more, few Americans seem deeply troubled about their lack of historical knowledge. "I probably don't remember most of my history, to be quite honest," said a Dayton woman who participated in one of six focus groups conducted as part of this project. "I don't think you have to know it to be a good citizen."

    A Secaucus, N.J., man agreed. "You need to be able to think, analyze, and be able to use the free enterprise system rather than [remember] chapter and verse of 1776," he said.

    What should Americans know? Nearly nine in 10 parents said the schools should make a special effort to "teach new immigrants about American values" – a view shared by an equal proportion of a special sample of foreign-born parents.

    Nearly as many – 85 percent of all parents – believe that students should "understand the common history that ties Americans together" in order to graduate from high school. Eight in 10 said students "should learn what it means to be an American." At the same time, seven in 10 parents and a larger proportion of foreign-born parents said "schools should teach about the holidays and traditions of different cultures."

    The theme of diversity within – and not in place of – unity was sounded several times in the survey report.

    "By a 79 percent to 18 percent margin, parents think the bigger priority for the schools should be to teach kids to be proud of being a part of this country and to learn the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, not to focus on instilling pride in their ethnic group's identity and heritage" – a view endorsed by two out of three foreign-born parents.

    That's not to say parents expect the schools to produce the next generation of xenophobes. More than eight in 10 said it is "absolutely essential" for the schools to teach children to respect people from different backgrounds.

    But these parents agree that home, not the school, is the best place to teach ethnic or racial identity. "My first-grader is learning about the history of the United States," says a Hispanic mother in San Jose, Calif. "When he gets home he tells me about Abraham Lincoln and the flag, why it has stars. It is important to me that he learn this, definitely. I want him to learn the history of Mexico, too – but that, I am going to teach him."

    And most of all, English first: Two thirds of all parents interviewed – and a larger proportion of foreign-born parents – said it was more important for the public schools to "teach them English as quickly as possible, even if this means they fall behind in other subjects" rather than to teach subjects in "their native language, even if this means it takes them longer to learn English.

    "It's more important ... to learn English; they will fit in sooner and better," says a Colorado mother. "Even if we have to put math behind a little bit – they'll catch up."

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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