Newsweek recently asked 1,000 Americans to take the nation’s official citizenship test, and the results weren’t pretty: Twenty-nine percent couldn’t name the vice president; 73 percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War; 44 percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.

Nor is civic ignorance limited to federal arcana. A few years ago, citizens of Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the U.S. were asked to answer questions on international affairs. The results were similarly disheartening. Sixty-eight percent of Danes, 75 percent of Brits, and 76 percent of Finns could, for example, identify the Taliban, but only 58 percent of Americans managed to do the same–even though we’ve led the charge in Afghanistan.

The danger of the public’s lack of information is evident in the current debate over the federal budget. A 2010 poll, for example, revealed that Americans favored cutting the deficit by reducing foreign aid from what they thought was the current level of 27 percent of the budget to just 13 percent. The real figure: less than 1 percent.

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