Don’t Know Much About History
I made note yesterday of a survey which showed that two-thirds of Americans could not identify a single member of the Supreme Court. While that’s perhaps not a cause for concern, there is another survey out there that makes me wonder if universal suffrage is such a great idea:
A recent poll gauging U.S. knowledge of civics and Revolutionary-era history pointed up all sorts of sobering gaps. The American Revolution Center sponsored a national survey of 1,001 U.S. adults who took a multiple choice test. Before the test, 89 percent of respondents expressed confidence they could pass it; 83 percent went on to fail. Among the findings:
• More Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” than could identify the Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the Constitution.
• More than 50 percent of respondents attributed the quote “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs” to either Thomas Paine, George Washington or President Obama. The quote is from Karl Marx, author of “The Communist Manifesto.”
• More than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place, and half of respondents believed that either the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 occurred before the American Revolution.
• With a political movement now claiming the mantle of the Revolutionary-era Tea Party, more than half of respondents misidentified the outcome of the 18th-century agitation as a repeal of taxes, rather than as a key mobilization of popular resistance to British colonial rule.
• A third mistakenly believed that the Bill of Rights does not guarantee a right to a trial by jury, while 40 percent mistakenly thought that it did secure the right to vote.
• More than half misidentified the system of government established in the Constitution as a direct democracy, rather than a republic-a question that must be answered correctly by immigrants qualifying for U.S. citizenship.
Ironically enough, the same survey reported that 90 percent of the respondents believed it was important for Americans to know their nation’s history.
While it’s yet another depressing reminder of the extent to which schools have failed to teach basic American history, or more importantly to instill in people a desire to learn about history, it’s not at all news. We’ve seen surveys like this before and I’m sure that we’ll see them again. I’m not at all certain that this means much of anything for the political system, though, because the people who are unable to identify the basic facts of American history are also unlikely to be the ones lining up at the polling place at six in the morning to cast a ballot.
That’s one of the reasons that I’m personally not bothered by issues like low voter turnout; there seems to me to be little positive value in encouraging the willfully ignorant to participate in a system they know nothing about.