Deception & Misdirection

Harvard students: How stupid are they? (and the case of the Louisiana literacy test)

[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]

One of the great deceptions in American politics is that students at Ivy League schools such as Harvard know more about the great issues of the day than, say, students at a typical state university. In fact, a study conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute suggests that students at “elite” schools such as Harvard and Yale are less knowledgeable about economics, politics, and American history than students at other schools—and, incredibly, that seniors at Harvard and Yale and some other prestigious colleges and universities know less than freshmen at the same schools.

[Information on the ISI study is available at When I was editor of the magazine Tea Party Review magazine, I published an article about the study. It’s no longer available online, but I’m posting it below.]

Schools like Harvard and Yale are designed not to promote knowledge but to perpetuate an aristocracy. That is a task they perform well. Members of prominent political families, children of the rich, and other highly privileged kids attend such schools alongside a certain number of students who are genuinely gifted in physical sciences, the arts, and other fields (but not especially in fields directly related to public policy). The truly gifted children give cover to the privileged blockheads. (For one exploration of the lack of real diversity at prestigious colleges, go here: ).

Once, on a Mensa bulletin board on Facebook, I offered a challenge: Name a president or vice president, or a major-party candidate for president or vice president, or an immediate family member of a president or vice president or major-party nominee for one of those offices, who (a) attended an Ivy League college or university or other highly prestigious college or university, and (b) would have been admitted to such a school if the selection had been based on intelligence and academic merit. Of course, responses to my challenge would be matters of opinion, but well-informed opinion; Mensans as a group are quite adept at spotting others of “our kind.”

My query drew blanks. No one could think of anyone who met the criteria, except maybe Bill Clinton, who’s highly intelligent, even if, as one respondent commented, Clinton ended up using that high intelligence mainly to keep track of his own lies. That’s it. With all due respect, the Kennedys, the Bushes, Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, et al.—not one would have made it into an elite school if the selection had been based solely on merit. That supports my belief that, on matters related to politics and public policy, a degree from a place like Harvard isn’t worth much.

…which brings us to the matter of the 1964 Louisiana literacy test. This is a test that was administered by Louisiana officials to prospective voters. The purpose, officials said, was to keep unqualified people from voting. But, of course, as everyone knows, the real purpose was to keep African-Americans from voting. (Google “1964 Louisiana literacy test” and you can find this test posted all over the Web.)

As reported by the online magazine Slate, formerly a sister publication of the Washington Post, even Harvard students—our best and brightest, right?—couldn’t answer the questions. Proof, if there ever was proof, that such tests were shams. If Harvard students in 2014 can’t answer the questions, surely those stupid Louisianans stood no chance. Obviously, state officials gave “white” prospective voters a pass on the test and used it to block voting by African-Americans.

Here’s the Slate story, with the video of the Harvard students:

Here’s the test:


This is the version from Slate at


Notice anything?

Yep. It’s clearly a fake. It’s not on stationery. The typefaces are the sort you’d use in a word processing program, not something typed in 1964 and, presumably, mimeographed. The language shows no signs of dating to 1964. The questions seem to come from an attempt to recreate an IQ test, but some of them really don’t make much sense. The grammar ain’t too hot. The questions are not consistent with real tests that were intended to disqualify African-Americans, in which the questions dealt with matters of civic literacy such as the three branches of government. No source, no date, no place, no government entity that might have created or administered the test is cited other than “State of Louisiana,” which appears as simple text. (At least one other version of this exists. It appears to have been either typed on a typewriter or created in a word-processor using a typewriter-style font. It is not in the style of a real document from 1964.)

Let me be clear: Democrats often used tests to exclude African-Americans from voting. That practice was despicable and was a violation of the Constitution, and those who conducted such efforts should be held accountable. Current efforts to violate voters’ rights, such as the recent elimination of the secret ballot in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, should be fought tooth and nail. But this document is fake. Perhaps, somewhere, there is a real document with some similarities to this one that was used for voter disqualification; perhaps not. (To readers: Any clues regarding the source for this “test” would be greatly appreciated.)

In the video, the Harvard students made fools of themselves attempting (or pretending to attempt) to answer the questions, and commenting on what the test “shows.” If it’s fake, it doesn’t “show” squat.

I’ve seen the fake test on the Tennessee state website, and in a newsletter published by Prince William County, Virginia (my former home), and in AP History guides, and in materials put forth by civil rights organizations. Go to the message board on sites for alleged skeptics such as and the Straight Dope and you’ll see that commenters, with one or two exceptions, simply accept the material as real, without bothering to check it out or even to express an ounce of skepticism.

Slate, after posting the story about the Harvard students, kinda sorta addressed the question of whether the test is real. ( ) I won’t hold my breath waiting for a retraction of the original story or a revision that points out the foolishness of the Harvard students.

Too Good to Check. That’s the term for something like this. The test fits in with people’s preconceptions, and seems to fit in with the true story of Jim Crow, and that’s just good enough for most people who think they’re really smart but aren’t.


Here’s that article I mentioned above, from 2011, about Harvard and Yale and “negative learning.”

Negative learning – Why Obama needs the youth vote

By Richard A. Brake, Ph.D.
Co-Chair, ISI National Civic Literacy Board

College makes you more liberal. Actually knowing things makes you more conservative.

At the end of September, President Obama hit the campaign trail in an effort to revive the coalition that elected him in 2008. He was seeking to avoid the fate predicted for his party by most political observers – a huge defeat in the November 2010 midterm elections.

His first stop: Madison, Wisconsin. Why Madison? The city, and the University of Wisconsin campus to which it is home, have both tactical and symbolic importance to the Left. As the state capital, Madison is home to thousands of unionized government employees. And the university is widely regarded as a birthplace of Progressivism, the governing ideology of the Obama administration and of most of the academic world.

Madison is also an epicenter of the Youth for Obama movement that played a critical role in the President’s 2008 victory. Without the youth vote, Barack Obama would not be president and he would never have had the large Congressional majorities necessary for the passage of such measures as ObamaCare.

Historically, voters under age 30 have not been very reliable voters. For most of the 20th Century, their average turnout was in the 30-40% range. However, their turnout skyrocketed as the century turned, from 40% in the year 2000 to 49% in 2004, then to 51% of young eligible voters in 2008. As a result, 18-to-29-year-old voters made up 18% of all voters in the last presidential election – the highest share of the total vote since the advent of modern exit polling in the early 1970s.

And it wasn’t just turnout that made the youth vote critical to the Obama campaign. Just as important was the fact that young people voted for Obama overwhelmingly, 68% to 30%.

Middle-aged people and older people – those 45 and older, a 54% majority of the electorate – voted for McCain/Palin by 51% to 47%. But the net vote for Obama from young people added almost seven points to his overall percentage – and made him president.

Unfortunately for the President and his party, the youth vote is historically unreliable, especially in midterm elections. Even in 2006, a year of voter discontent and relatively high voter interest, the turnout difference between younger and older voters was huge – a 26% turnout for those under 30 compared to a 54% turnout for those age 30 and older. (In 2008, the gap shrank to a 50-year low, 51% vs. 67%.)

If turnout among the young is low, Democrats are in trouble. That’s true even if young people maintain their overall level of support for the president and his party – and most polls show youth support for Obama and the Democrats falling.

So it’s hard to imagine the President replicating the magic he performed with the youth vote in 2008. But that won’t stop him from trying. Besides, as the politicians say, “You dance with the one that brung ya” – you turn for support to the people who put you in office in the first place.

All this talk of Obama and the youth vote, though, ignores an important question: Why did so many young people vote for him in 2008, and why do so many maintain their support, even as youth unemployment skyrockets and as Obama policies burden younger generations with countless new restrictions on individual freedom and with unimaginable debt?

Obviously, much of the president’s support among the young is personal, based on his image as a “cool” guy who’s comfortable with youth culture, whose ethnicity makes him a history-maker, and who is idolized by newsreaders and by writers for comedy shows. This “cult of personality” explanation is certainly valid, but recent research by the National Civic Literacy Board – a project of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute – points to educational and ideological reasons for young people’s attraction to Obama and Progressivism.

In an effort to hold institutions of higher education accountable for actual academic outcomes, ISI has surveyed more than 30,000 college freshmen and seniors, from 85 colleges and universities, over the past five years, to determine their levels of civic literacy. (Civic literacy is defined as proficient knowledge and understanding of America’s core history, key texts, founding principles, and enduring political and economic institutions.) The results are based on responses to a test made up of 60 straight-forward multiple choice questions, many of the questions drawn from such sources as the U.S. Citizenship Exam and the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) high school civics test.

The study’s results (posted at are astonishing. Given the astronomical cost of college today, one assumes that a typical college student at a typical school will depart campus with more knowledge of American history, government, foreign affairs, and economics than he or she had upon arrival. That is not the case.

The average grade for freshmen was 51% – and for seniors 54%, a mere 3 percent increase over the course of four years of college. Both were, of course, F’s.

With five choices for each question, less than half of the undergraduates could select the definition of federalism, the meaning of “judicial review,” the names of the three branches of government, the sources of famous passages from the Declaration and Gettysburg Address, and the dates (within wide ranges) of significant military conflicts and battles.

Here’s the most astonishing part:

At such prestigious schools as Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Georgetown, Duke, and Berkeley, freshmen did better than their seniors on the same test. That’s right: The study suggested that studying at those elite colleges made a person less able to answer the questions correctly.

We call it “negative learning.”

Our study results call into question the capacity of our colleges and universities to train future citizen-leaders of our society.

After seeing the early results of the Civic Literacy study, we at ISI wanted to go further, to see how college influence other aspects of collegiate life – in particular, the ideological and partisan preferences of American college students. If college students aren’t learning about politics and economics and their country’s history, what are they learning? There is no dispute that college professors, as a whole, lean sharply to the left, but evidence is sparse regarding their impact on the political orientation of their students.

So, last year, ISI surveyed a random sample of 2500 adults, college-educated and not, and assessed both their civic knowledge and their attitudes and opinions on politics, policy, and culture.

We found that, although colleges do a poor job educating students about American politics, economics, and history, they are quite effective at shifting young people to the left on social issues and on party and ideological self-identification. Among oft-cited factors believed to influence a person’s political orientation, college attendance trails only ethnicity, gender, and marital status. Attending college shifts people toward the Democrats and the political left, especially on social issues such as abortion-on-demand, same-sex marriage, and school prayer.

College makes you more liberal. On the other hand, actually knowing things seems to make you more conservative. For example, according to a 2008 Zogby poll, McCain/Palin voters, by 63% to 27%, were able to name the party that controlled Congress. Most Obama/Biden voters got the question wrong (43% incorrect, 41% correct, and the rest couldn’t answer). Those who got the control-of-Congress question correct voted 56%-43% for McCain/Palin, while those who got it wrong voted 65%-35% for Obama/Biden.

Think about it: If the 2008 election had been limited to those who knew (or could guess) which party controlled Congress – a minimum level of knowledge for someone to be considered an informed voter – McCain/Palin would have won in a landslide with probably 80%-90% of the electoral vote.

Keeping in mind the results of ISI’s research, one can see what President Obama has up his sleeve when it comes to his youth strategy. One can assume that, as a former law instructor, he is well aware of the ways in which colleges push young people to the left while keeping them ignorant of history, politics, and economics.

In the early days of the United States, our nation’s Founders reasonably feared that an ignorant citizenry would be swayed by demagogues, leading to the collapse of our democratic constitutional republic. (That’s what happened when France tried to mimic the American Revolution.) The Founders’ hopes were rooted in the belief that knowledgeable Americans would check the tendency of politicians to abuse their powers. Today, our young people – and, especially, those from the elite colleges that will provide a disproportionate share of the country’s business, cultural, and political leaders – are being kept ignorant and leftwing. Unless things change, they will lack the ability to fulfill the essential role of informed citizens.

Today, too many college professors are dedicated to what the Left calls “revolution by search committee” – making sure that people in the conservative/mainstream part of the political spectrum never make it onto the faculty in the first place. Today, too many alumni continue to send their money to colleges that promote “negative learning,” and too many taxpayers fail to protest this use of their tax dollars.

We will soon see whether President Obama is successful at re-energizing the youth vote that made all the difference in 2008. And, in the next few years, we will see whether he and the Left are successful implementing a longterm political strategy based on the idea that Ignorance is Bliss.

  • From the March 2011 issue of Tea Party Review magazine, edited by Dr. Steven J. Allen

Dr. Steven J. Allen

A journalist with 45 years’ experience, Dr. Allen served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton and as senior researcher for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. He earned a master’s…
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