Don’t Know Much About History — And That’s a Problem


Americans don’t know nearly as much about U.S. history as they think they know. But their knowledge of popular culture is off the charts.

A new survey commissioned by the non-profit, non-partisan American Revolution Center (ARC) indicated that 80 percent of adult Americans (and 94 percent of those aged 18 to 49) were able to link the late pop star Michael Jackson to his signature songs “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.” But only slightly over half could identify James Madison as the Father of the U.S. Constitution.

Furthermore, even though “tea parties” have become a popular form of political dissent in recent months, only 12 percent could correctly identify the most important repercussion of the Boston Tea Party of 1773. That was the provoking of Parliament into enacting the Coercive Acts, which strengthened American resistance and led to convening of the First Continental Congress. Most respondents incorrectly answered on this multiple choice test that the Tea Party resulted in repeal of the tax on tea.

Asked before taking the test to grade their historical knowledge, only 3 percent gave themselves an “F.” But 83 percent flunked, meaning they could not correctly answer more than 16 of the 27 questions.

Perhaps adults have forgotten some of the history they learned in school long ago. But the prospect of their children becoming a better-informed generation is not bright.

The study of traditional U.S. history has declined since the Vietnam era due to such divergent factors as a crowded curriculum, the spread of a separatist band of multiculturalism, and the government’s focus on testing reading and math skills to the exclusion of history and other essential elements of the liberal arts.

In the interest of reviving the discipline, organizations of the nation’s leading history scholars have repeatedly called on public school systems to require history teachers to have majored in history in college; however, no state teacher certification boards do so, and the best evidence is that relatively few history teachers have majored in history.

A director of a federally funded Little Rock project to upgrade history teachers’ knowledge reported that “only 1 percent of the district’s history teachers have a degree in American history.” Time to teach history in school day crowded with other requirements is also a problem. A Sacramento project director noted that the subject of history receives an average of only 12 instructional minutes a day.

Last year, the Bradley Project on America’s National Identity warned that “the next generation of Americans will know less than their parents about our history and founding ideals. And many Americans are more aware of what divides us than of what unites us.”

The gap seems to be growing already. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which samples grade-schoolers’ historical knowledge about every five years, last found that only one fourth of them tested at a proficient level. The next NAEP history test will be given in 2010.

On the 2006 NAEP, only 1 percent of eighth-graders could explain how the fall of the Berlin Wall affected U.S. foreign policy. More than half of high school seniors thought Italy, Germany, or Japan were U.S. allies in World War II.

The consequence of widespread ignorance of America’s founding principles and social progress is far more profound than poor performance in a game of Trivial Pursuit. If vast majorities do not grasp the meaning of liberties protected in the Bill of Rights, or fail to understand the workings of representative government, how will common values be passed along from one generation to the next?

As the authors of the ARC study noted, “The freedoms that we enjoy today must be defended and preserved — but first they must be understood.”

There is a modicum of good news. The ARC survey found that 90 percent of American adults encompassing a broad spectrum of the population agree that it is important that citizens know the history and principles of the American Revolution, and that it is vital that schools teach this subject.

If there is to be a turnaround, those citizens must let their school boards and elected representatives know that they want U.S. history stressed in the preparation and hiring of teachers, and in their children’s curriculum. Although few have an appetite for more testing, it could help if the NAEP would sample student knowledge of history more frequently than every five years and then release results state-by-state so that citizens could judge how successfully their schools are telling the American story.

Holland is author of a new study, “The Teaching of American History: Promise and Performance,” available on the Lexington Institute website: