Don’t Know Much About History…

November 21, 2008 | Blog

Our Fading Heritage, a new report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute finds that Americans — including college graduates and elected officials — don’t know much about history or civic literacy, more specifically.

More than 2,500 randomly selected Americans took ISI’s basic 33-question test on civic literacy and more than 1,700 people failed, with the average score 49 percent, or an “F.” Elected officials scored even lower than the general public with an average score of 44 percent and only 0.8 percent (or 21) of all surveyed earned an “A.” Even more startling is the fact that over twice as many people know Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Read the press release for more. And take the quiz yourself. Are you smarter than an elected official? Not to brag, but I got 31 out of 33 for a score of 94%. Beat that!

11 Comments

  1. Reply

    Sherman Dorn

    November 21, 2008

    33 of 33, but I'm an historian by training, and I guessed the test-writer's bias (correctly).

  2. Reply

    Liam Goldrick

    November 21, 2008

    Woo-hoo! Sherm nails it! Now you gotta run for office and save the rest of us from the know-nothings.

  3. Reply

    Pete Jones

    November 21, 2008

    I feel like I'm in some sort of Blog-warp. This post is a dead ringer for just about all of Rick Shenkman's at Just How Stupid Are We?

    Not that I disagree.

  4. Reply

    Liam Goldrick

    November 22, 2008

    Pete - I'm not sure whether to take that as a compliment or a charge that I'm derivative. Nonetheless, I'm been on a civic education/geography literacy kick since high school (back in the 1980s) after first seeing some of the National Geographic Society surveys about how little Americans knew about geography. Not much has changed, it appears. I'll check out Rick Shenkman's site more closely when I get the chance.

  5. Reply

    kerrjac

    November 22, 2008

    Check the ISI website again, under survey methods, & you'll see that you guys didn't really take the test that they'd administered. The study had it done over the phone, which I'd imagine would be a big hindrance.

    Personally, I think our country's education system is great, one of the best in the world, & I suspect that our kids are getting smarter & smarter w/each generation. It's just that when it come to studies like this one, we're not using the right tools to properly assess it. I mean, there's a pretty basic difference between knowledge and factual recall.

  6. Reply

    Pete Jones

    November 22, 2008

    Liam- I meant no complaint with my comment and am a fan of the blog. I just noticed the structural similarity between many of Shenkman's and this one. Most of his go: "[high number]% of [people, school children, teenagers, etc] don't know [basic fact]... [anger]"

    I definitely agree that civic education/geographical literacy are important... just did a double take in reading the post in the "education blogs" portion of my feed reader, rather than the "history blogs" portion.

  7. Reply

    Liam Goldrick

    November 22, 2008

    kerrjac i don't dispute your point about how the actual survey was administered. however i don't think that a phone vs. online survey can be used as an excuse for an awful showing by Americans on this civic literacy survey. yes, knowledge is different from factual recall. but you need a solid mastery of facts as a foundation upon which to build knowledge and understanding. as a nation, we should be able to do better.

  8. Reply

    kerrjac

    November 23, 2008

    Even assuming that the test was valid, Liam, there's a fine line in saying what people *should* know. I worry that you maybe underestimating people. Did you hear about how some of the world's smartest physicists are taking up improv classes? http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=94357426

    The mind is like any great resource, it's flexible, has alternative usages, but ultimately its uses are scarce, or constantly in need. Some of its uses are devoted to knowledge, but it also requires other things, even seemingly mindless entertainment & gossip have their places.

    I guess the question I'd pose to you is, sure, those sorts of facts have some degree of import, but how exactly important are they & at what cost? What should people have to give up - be it time, effort, money - to attain that knowledge? Are those facts truly more important than what individuals have themselves have decided - consciously or unconsciously - to fill their brains with? The cost of renting an apartment *should* be affordable, just as people *should* know those facts, but rent-control can cause homelessness.

    Ultimately, the answer still might be, yes, people should know those things. But my point is that either way, I don't think the situation is as black & white as you might make it out to be.

  9. Reply

    Kevin Carey

    November 24, 2008

    33 out of 33 -- education bloggers are clearly a super-smart lot...but can it really be true that college educators only averaged 55% ? That's frightening.

  10. Reply

    Liam Goldrick

    November 24, 2008

    Kevin - Nice work. kerrjac's point is relevant with respect to the administration of the actual survey: a multiple-choice questionnaire by phone. I can't believe that anyone's score would have dropped off so precipitously just because it was a phone survey, so the college educators surveyed still have some s'plaining to do IMHO.

  11. Reply

    Janel

    December 2, 2008

    In my experience, I think some of the mre important things that should be taught in a history class aren't. I understand that teachers have content standards to follow, but citizenship and government should be added intowhat is necessary to teach, in my opinion. I also think there should be more electives available fo students to take to learn some of the things tha US citizens should know. Thn again, it is hard to decide what those things should be.

    A phone survey isn'tvery representative of the populaton though.


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