Saturday, July 2, 2011

Can You Find Independence Day on a Calendar?

If so, you're among the 94% of Americans who can. Unfortunately, that means 6% of us cannot.

Ignorance of our past is nothing new. Jay Leno has poked a lot of fun at Americans who think the first flag was sewn by Betty Ford, the first president was Benjamin Franklin, and Louis Armstrong was the first man on the moon. These are some of the same people who can't name the vice president or tell you in which country you would find the Panama Canal. We laugh and assume such ignorance is rare, and that Leno had to ask a lot of questions before getting the answers he put on the air. 

Now, however, we have more cause for concern. The Department of Education reported in May that only 20% of 6th graders, 17% of 8th graders, and 12% of high school seniors scored at the "proficient" level for history on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Only 1% of seniors scored as "advanced."

If high school seniors enter college knowing very little about history, the colleges must spend time teaching things that their students should already know. In turn, this means that colleges do not have the time to give students a higher level of education on the subject, leaving college-educated adults with minimal knowledge and understanding of history.

And it's not just history. Knowledge of all social studies is lacking. Facebook has revealed Americans' ignorance of geography, ranking 117th among 193 countries. Knowledge of civics is similarly poor. In 2009, when Oklahoma high school students were given the U.S. citizenship test--the test given to those who hope to become naturalized U.S. citizens--only 2.8% passed.  Compare that to the 92% pass rate for those from other countries who are seeking U.S. citizenship. In addition, only 23% of the Oklahoma students tested correctly identified the first president of the United States. Subsequently, Newsweek found that 38% of their sample of 1000 Americans also failed the citizenship test. See the test questions Newsweek used here

This is embarrassing, but so what? Is this really such a problem?

Putting aside the often-quoted maxim that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it, in a democracy, this is very important. The majority of recent high school graduates meet the age requirement for voting. Citizens can run for office. But can a democracy thrive if its voters are ignorant, or if they put ignorant people into office? 

I'm not talking about the slips of the tongue to which all politicians fall victim. There is no doubt that President Obama knows that there are 50 states in the U.S.--not 57 as he once said in an off-hand comment at a campaign stop. Michele Bachmann, if she had thought about it, probably would not have said that Concord, New Hampshire was where the "shot heard 'round the world" was fired. Campaigning is exhausting; people make mistakes. Just ask Joe Biden. (He's the vice president, you know.)

But when they refuse to acknowledge their own ignorance, we have a problem. We saw this when Michele Bachmann refused to admit her error in saying, "But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents [e.g. Declaration of Independence] worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." Bachmann's statement sounded good, but the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, died in 1832, decades before the end of slavery. She then referred to the abolitionist efforts of John Quincy Adams, who was not quite nine years old when we declared our independence, and who died in 1848, nearly fifteen years before the Emmancipation Proclamation. This rhetorical error was not nearly as important as the content of the rest of her speech, but because she refused to admit that she misspoke, it has become the only thing people know about her talk.

Sarah Palin staunchly defended her description of Paul Revere's famous ride to secretly warn colonists of the movements by the British regulars as, ". . . he who warned, uh, the, the British that they weren't gonna be takin' away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells, and, and, um, making sure as he's ridin' his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that, uh, we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free." It was a forgivable blunder if she owned up to it, but instead she stood by it saying she knew her history. What is even worse, some of her supporters tried to change the Wikipedia page on Paul Revere to coincide with her erroneous statement.  Fortunately, Wikipedia closed the page to revision when it discovered the effort.

Ignorance can be cured, but a dogged persistence in, and defense of it cannot. Nor can the willful distortion of "facts" so often engaged in by politicians and pundits.

I am fortunate to occasionally co-teach a day-long seminar on civics for high school students. These students are hand selected by civic organizations for this special program, and they give up some of their free time to attend. They are usually well informed and enthusiastic about the subject. And they always pass the U.S. citizenship test. These young people give me hope for the leaders of tomorrow, but they are few. What about the rest of our young people?

President Obama has called for reform of No Child Left Behind which focuses on achievement in reading, writing, and mathematics. Knowing that we're doing so poorly in teaching our children history, geography, and civics, perhaps we can take this opportunity to refocus our energies in that direction. Our schools are not just there to generate test scores. They help create informed and involved citizens.

What do you think? Are social studies as important as reading, writing, and math? And on this Independence Day weekend, are you willing to take a challenge?

Take the sample test questions on the NAEP History assessment here. There are five questions each at three different levels: 4th grade, 8th grade, and 12th grade. Let us know how you did.


  1. I did it. Got a 100%. But, er, I'm Canadian, not American.

    I agree schooling in history and all the other core courses is critical to maintaining a strong, truly democratic country. It scares me, that given these statistics, some politicians in power are talking about cutting education funding to balance budgets. Balancing budgets by turning out even more ignorant voters is an incredibly unwise, downright stupid, idea.

    Voting people into power who are just as ignorant will be catastrophic for America.This means better education, not less.

  2. Good work on the test. Congratulations, P.A.

    You're right--the first thing some politicians want to cut in a bad economy is education. It provides savings in the short term, but we need a long-term view. We need well-educated people to help us avoid the problems that got us into a bad economy in the first place.

  3. It's hard to own up to a mistake, or worse a level of ignorance, but so admirable when someone does. I was disturbed to learn just how few students can identify Abraham Lincoln and George Washington from a picture. Apparently the *back* of Michael Jordan's head was more recognizable.

  4. I wonder how many $1 and $5 bills those same kids have handled.

  5. Very interesting blog, Carol. I took the test and am embarrassed to say I missed one. I didn't know who fought with North Korea and wavered betweent China and the Soviet Union. Jay Leno's street quizzes are scary. Education is the last place we should be cutting funding. Don't they realize how it jeopardizes the future of this country?

  6. Missing one isn't bad, Ellis. High school seniors as a whole scored only 56% on the five questions presented. Your 80% is very respectable.