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.

FILED UNDER: Education, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    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.”

    Everybody knows Marx was quoting Obama.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I don’t know, maybe I’d have to read the questions closer, but the description of the questions doesn’t impress me. For one thing, a lot of the questions that immigrants need to answer for U.S. citizenship are trivial: the line of Presidential succession past the Vice President is trivial.

    I can’t tell whether that Karl Marx quote is trivial or inconsequential for purposes of U.S. history.

    Do people know that a jury trial is not guaranteed in all cases? Or do people somehow not fundamentally misunderstand our system if they believe that the right to vote appears somewhere in the Bill of Rights?

    And need I mention that Prof. Taylor hates the term “republic” as a synonym for representative democracy. He’d fail the test-givers.

    Not being able to identify the Bill of Rights is big. I’d rather see questions on what the three branches of government are, how a bill becomes a law, the basic difference btw/ a Representative and a Senator, and how Supreme Court justices and cabinet officials are selected.

  3. sam says:

    I remember years ago watching an East Side Kids movie. An older man in the neighborhood, an immigrant, was studying for his citizenship exam. He asked the boys a series of questions about the Bill of Rights, which amendment guaranteed what, etc. They couldn’t tell him and were somewhat chagrined. He told them not to worry that the knowledge was in their bones. I think that’s true of most Americans — they might not know exactly what amendment safeguards what freedom, but they’re not ignorant of the freedom.

  4. Franklin says:

    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.”

    Oh, boy, Zels is going to be all over this one. 🙂

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    Schools insist on teaching history from textbooks. It won’t work. It never did. I learned none of the history I know from school.

    But the blame does not rest on schools alone. Try getting a school board to let you substitute movies or TV for a text book. Try getting them to let you write a textbook that isn’t dry and mind-numbing.

    You want to teach history to school kids? Let fiction writers and directors and other creatives do it. Odds of school boards letting that happen? Zero.

  6. TangoMan says:

    This dynamic pretty much mirrors what John Zeigler reported on how uninformed Obama voters were on the issues during the last election. His interviews were representative of what Zogby found in a post-election poll.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    You want to teach history to school kids? Let fiction writers and directors and other creatives do it.

    What makes you think that those writing the history books aren’t writing fiction already? It’s just that they’re not good fiction writers.

    That’s especially true of history prior to about 1500. We really know very little about the distant past and the farther back you go the less we know.

  8. floyd says:

    Sam;
    I guess thinking with your bones is at least one step up from thinking with your skin, which is the “mode du jour”. [lol]

    Michael;
    Fiction writers already write a great deal of the “history” taught in public schools, where apparently learning to read numbs the mind, but reruns of “Hector Heathcote…. now there’s the ticket! [lol]

    All of the Schools in our district use multi-media teaching aids, It’s the content which is at fault for the errors. The teachers, for the most part, are either ignorant of the errors, or willfully support them.
    Don’t forget that the stories of “dead white men” can only be stories of racism and sexism, so history must be presented from the perpective of those who belive this. and other fiction writers.

  9. matt says:

    tangoman it’s obviously not just Obama voters…

  10. TangoMan says:

    tangoman it’s obviously not just Obama voters…

    I realize that ignorance isn’t bounded by ideology. That said though the degree of ignorance isn’t uniformly distributed. The Democratic coalition has far more variance on education than the Republican coalition. The Democrats dominate in the highly educated demographic and the most poorly educated demographics, whereas Republicans dominate the broad middle band. The poorly educated Democrats far outnumber the highly educated Democrats, so when we talk about effect size we’re going to see a lot more ignorance of civic issues amongst voters who lean Democratic than Republican.

  11. An Interested Party says:

    …so when we talk about effect size we’re going to see a lot more ignorance of civic issues amongst voters who lean Democratic than Republican.

    And the proof to support this claim is where, exactly…

  12. Juneau: says:

    I had a great history teacher in Junior High school – the focus was US history and he, along with the old Alistaire Cooke (?) movie series really brought life to the historical events. That being said, I think that what is seriously missing in todays K-12 educaton is the connectedness between the words and the ideals and dreams they represent. Just memorizing the B of R to pass a test is one thing. To really understand how it makes this country absolutely unique in both it’s founding and ideals, is what really makes history relevant to today.

    Plus, academic standards suck in public schools…

    And we need to quit teaching kids so much about contemplating their navels and more about R, R, and Arithmetic.

  13. TangoMan says:

    And the proof to support this claim is where, exactly…

    I’m not inclined to go digging for something that you can verify yourself, but what I will do is post a comment and data sources from a previous debate.

    Exit polls from the 2000 election

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Dems . . . Repub
    * No H.S. Degree – – – – – – – – 59% . . . 39%
    * High School Graduate – – – 48% . . . 49%
    * Some College – – – – – – – – – 45% . . . 51%
    * College Graduate – – – – – – -45% . . . 51%
    * Post-Graduate Degree – – -52% . . . 44%

    The Thirdway Think Tank reports: From 1992 to 2004 the Democratic party has been losing educated voters.

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1992. . 1996. . 2000. . 2004
    High School . . . . . .54%. . 59% . .49%. . 47%
    Some College . . . .52%. . 55% . .47%. . 46%
    College Grad. . . . . 49%. . 49%. . 47% . .46%
    Post Grad. . . . . . . . 58%. . 57%. . 54%. . 55%
    page 50

  14. G.A.Phillips says:

    Did they have any questions about how many states we have in this country?

  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    The problem is not the correctness of the history being taught. Obviously when the country doesn’t know what the Bill of Rights is it’s not a question of detail. It’s a complete failure.

    The parties don’t help the matter because Right and Left both insist on turning school boards into political battlefields. The usual talking points of both sides tend to be bullshit. No, the textbooks don’t teach that all white men were racist. No, the textbooks don’t glorify war. It would be most helpful probably f partisans on both sides just f–ked off and left professionals to determine curricula.

    Insistence on historical accuracy is — and I know this is counterintuitive — not a particularly relevant concern at the most basic levels. When you have a failure this massive the nit-picking details aren’t the problem. What we need is a way to transmit a certain base level of information to a large number of kids. Once that’s done we can worry about spin and emphasis.

    The creatives could help. After all, we have children paying us to learn our made-up histories and character biographies.

  16. Juneau: says:

    It would be most helpful probably f partisans on both sides just f–ked off and left professionals to determine curricula.

    And just which professionals would these be?

    What we need is a way to transmit a certain base level of information to a large number of kids. Once that’s done we can worry about spin and emphasis.

    The last time I saw, read, or talked to my kids about any class other than hard science being taught without inherent – and I might add, liberal – spin was…(crickets).

  17. TangoMan says:

    It would be most helpful probably f partisans on both sides just f–ked off and left professionals to determine curricula.

    I agree with most of your comment, and I even support this notion, but let’s not pretend that “professionals” haven’t been deeply involved in the textbook debate. When the majority of professional historians lean left, as they do, then their viewpoint on what’s important and what’s not important is influenced and this filters down into their work on how to shape a history curriculum.

    Insistence on historical accuracy is — and I know this is counterintuitive — not a particularly relevant concern at the most basic levels.

    I’ll agree. I’d prefer that the basic foundation of knowledge be conveyed even if some of the details HAVE TO BE wrong, if presented the correct details is an impediment to the transfer of knowledge. For instance, the best example of this is teaching Newtonian Physics without calculus. When the student masters calculus then they have to revisit some of the concepts they’ve learned in elementary physics and undo what they’ve learned and replace it with a calculus-based perspective. I’d say that they benefited from the earlier exposure to the knowledge, even if the knowledge gained was an approximation rather than an exact representation and it was better to get that knowledge sooner rather than putting it off until the student mastered calculus.

    I’m not exactly sure how transferable this process is to other fields and what examples you have in mind, but the principle itself isn’t outlandish.

  18. steve says:

    “The last time I saw, read, or talked to my kids about any class other than hard science being taught without inherent – and I might add, liberal – spin was..”

    The last time I heard a conservative able to tolerate anything without conservative spin was….

    Steve

  19. anjin-san says:

    we’re going to see a lot more ignorance of civic issues amongst voters who lean Democratic than Republican.

    And we are also going to see the smartest, best educated folks voting Democratic, which probably explains the “W” bumper sticker on your pickup truck.

  20. TangoMan says:

    And we are also going to see the smartest, best educated folks voting Democratic, which probably explains the “W” bumper sticker on your pickup truck.

    Considering I voted for Kerry I think that your conceptualization of these matter is off a bit.

  21. matt says:

    Wow so all you can present is data from 10 years ago? really? I especially like how your link to nothing for added authority 😛

    I don’t believe you voted for Kerry so if you could give me your thoughts on why you did I”d appreciate it.

  22. TangoMan says:

    I don’t believe you voted for Kerry so if you could give me your thoughts on why you did I”d appreciate it.

    I can do better than that. Here is a link to a post from Oct. 20, 2004 in which I declare my intention.

    Don’t take that declaration in the wrong way though, it was really a choice of the lesser of two evils. The whole “bringing democracy to Arabs” fantasy without accounting for the different cultural foundation of Iraq was so harebrained that I’d have preferred Lurch to be President.

  23. floyd says:

    “we are also going to see the smartest, best educated folks voting Democratic”

    Since we are talking here about a failing education system, I assume you mean that we start with the smartest, then reduce them to the point of being the best educated?
    Perhaps that would explain the voting?[lol]

    Many smart people have degrees,And though being smart may be measured in degrees, it can not be measured in diplomas….

    Since we are discussing history…. it must be pointed out that there are plenty of examples where the smartest weren’t among the best educated…..Einstein, Edison, Ford, Bell,Gates,Faulkner, Melville, Shaw, Kroc,Tarantino,Gershwin, Berlin……

  24. Juneau: says:

    The last time I heard a conservative able to tolerate anything without conservative spin was….

    Soooo…I guess that you believe there are no conservatives in any of our nation’s Universities?

    BTW, I teach college, I have kids in college that I discuss class assignments with, and my wife has a Masters degree as well. I think it’s safe to say I have a firm foundation for my observations…

  25. anjin-san says:

    the smartest weren’t among the best educated…..Einstein, Edison, Ford, Bell,Gates,Faulkner, Melville, Shaw, Kroc,Tarantino,Gershwin, Berlin……

    A genius typically does not have a lot of need for formal education provided by people they can run rings around without breaking a sweat.

  26. anjin-san says:

    Considering I voted for Kerry

    Not hard to believe, now that you mention it. Kerry also has the gift of being able to talk for a long time while actually saying next to nothing…

  27. Yo Mamma says:

    Your front page teaser says

    Most Americans are woefully ignorant about the basic tenants of our government

    Pretty sure you mean “tenets”. Not meant as a gratuitous slam, but I always find it ironic when folks hold forth on the ignorance of others while making ignorant mistakes themselves …

  28. G.A.Phillips says:

    Pretty sure you mean “tenets”. Not meant as a gratuitous slam, but I always find it ironic when folks hold forth on the ignorance of others while making ignorant mistakes themselves …

    um, ah, um, ah, um, ah, um, ah , it’s Bush’s fault?

    lol me too………………………………………………………….:)

  29. G.A.Phillips says:

    the smartest weren’t among the best educated…..Einstein, Edison, Ford, Bell,Gates,Faulkner, Melville, Shaw, Kroc,Tarantino,Gershwin, Berlin……

    Floyd, you left out Limbaugh, Beck, and Jesus…..

  30. floyd says:

    “Most Americans are woefully ignorant about the basic tenants of our government”
    “””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””

    I support the use of the unintentional word “tenants” in the context of the above statement.
    Like “resident Obama” , many others in government would be facing eviction if we only knew them better!

  31. floyd says:

    Au contrare , Mr. Phillips, Jesus had all the formal education available to those in his culture, but unlike many of the Scribes and Pharisees of his day, he had the guidence of the Holy Spirit to transform it from dogma to wisdom and truth.
    Many of our “best educated” today hold a position eqivalent to the Scribes and Pharisees,lacking only revelation.
    A couple of thousand years of history has had little effect on human nature.

    As for Limbaugh and Beck….. see below

    Anjin -San;
    While I agree with the basic “tenet” of your statement, I think that Einstein may have been the only actual genius on my list, the rest were men with talents developed by unusual powers of focus and determination.

  32. G.A.Phillips says:

    Many of our “best educated” today hold a position equivalent to the Scribes and Pharisees,lacking only revelation.

    🙂

    This would be my explanation for just about everything about everything. Except some of the most well educated we have here today are well educated with crap, witch points me toward the delusion factor.

    he had the guidance of the Holy Spirit to transform it from dogma to wisdom and truth.

    lol it’s just that simple)

    Just wish I could control my emotions better or like I should say let my Lord and savior do it for me, so I could enjoy this gift like I know I can and have done before……