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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 07/ 3/2010

What Americans don't know about their history

By Valerie Strauss

A new poll gauging American knowledge on a basic question about the nation's history -- “From which country did the United States win its independence?" -- is either good news or bad news, depending on your expectations:

Twenty-six percent of those surveyed did not know that the United States achieved its independence from Great Britain, according to the poll, conducted by the nonprofit Marist Institute for Public Opinion.

Six percent named a different country, including France, China, Japan, Mexico and Spain. Twenty percent said they weren’t sure.

The pollsters broke down the numbers and found gaps in knowledge according to region: 32 percent of Southerners weren’t sure or named the wrong country; 26 percent of Midwesterners were in the same category, as were 25 percent of Westerners and 16 percent of Northeasterners.

More depressing results -- depending on your expectations -- were found in a 2007 poll conducted by the U.S. Mint.

It showed that only 7 percent of those surveyed could name the first four presidents in order: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Thirty percent knew that Jefferson was the third president, 57 percent identified Jefferson as the main author of the Declaration of Independence, and 57 percent knew that Washington led the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

As you can see, there is a reason that advocates of history and civic education are in something of a panic about how little kids are getting.

Before I carry on with how much we don’t know, let me suggest one way that you and your children can learn a lot about U.S. history: Read --and ask your schools to invest in -- Joy Hakim’s award-winning “A History of US” series.

Though the series won the 1997 James A. Michener Award for Writing, was turned into a PBS series and draws rave reviews from historians, teachers and students from elementary school through, believe it or not, college, Hakim has had a tough time getting the books into classrooms.

That has everything to do with the way textbooks are written today -- blandly, by committee -- and how they are marketed and sold by the big publishing companies, which have a lock on sales in the big states. Hakim’s series is published by Oxford University Press, which doesn’t have the resources of the huge education publishers.

We have some idea about how much kids know about U.S. history because of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test commonly called “the nation’s report card” because it is periodically given to select grades across the country. Assessments in civics and history were given to students this year, and results will be released in 2011.

Here are some of the results of the last U.S. history NAEP, given in 2006:

Fourth-graders:

  • 46 percent identified Lincoln’s position on slavery from a well-known quote.
  • 66 percent understood the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty.
  • 35 percent explained how two inventions changed life in the United States.
  • 24 percent explained why people settled on the western frontier.

    Eighth-graders:
  • 78 percent correctly interpreted a portion of the Gettysburg Address.
  • 64 percent identified an impact of the cotton gin.
  • 43 percent explained goals of the Martin Luther King Jr. march.
  • 1 percent explained how the fall of the Berlin Wall affected foreign policy.

    12th-graders:
  • 67 percent knew that an important idea that helped shape the "Great Society" programs of President Lyndon Johnson was the belief that the federal government should play an active role in promoting social welfare.
  • 36 percent identified immigration pattern and explained its causes.
  • 14 percent explained a reason for involvement in the Korean War.

    It’s probably time to stop wasting effort on polls telling us what we already know, and figuring out how we can reverse this. Of course this is not a new phenomenon; Americans historically haven’t known much about their own history.

    But that’s no excuse.

    Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking washingtonpost.com/answersheet. And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at washingtonpost.com/higher-ed. Bookmark it!

  • By Valerie Strauss  | July 3, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
    Categories:  Civics Education, History  | Tags:  civics education, knowledge of july 4th, marist poll, marist poll on independence, naep, naep and civics, national assessment of educational progress, what americans know  
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    Comments

    "Read --and ask your schools to invest in -- Joy Hakim’s award-winning “A History of US” series."

    They're okay, but nothing outstanding. They won awards for all the politically correct hooha.

    Lots of textbooks today are excellent. You have no evidence that it's the textbooks, rather than simple stupidity, that leads to these wrong answers.

    Besides, your own post shows that seniors in high school have a much deeper understanding of history than all Americans (which is where the 26% failing comes from). So apparently, history books are doing a good job.

    Will there ever be an edublogger who won't jump to ill-informed, propagandist conclusions on the slightest pretext?

    Posted by: Cal_Lanier | July 3, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

    Who could name the first four presidents in order, who isn't an historian or history buff of some sort?

    Posted by: scott59 | July 3, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

    Everyone knows that the American educational system is broken. This is merely another example of this reality. The time has come to have a serious discussion why a national can spend somewhere around 20% of its GNP on a system that does not work. Sadly,I doubt that this will ever happen. By the way we spend more money on public education in this country than we do on health care.

    Posted by: jeffreed | July 3, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

    Perhaps one reason is that there's a lot more history than there used to be ;-)

    Posted by: GWGOLDB | July 3, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

    A sad result of NCLB and the testing reforms. More to come with Obama's blueprint as social studies is marginalized even further.

    Posted by: Care1 | July 3, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

    You need to correct this story. The first four presidents were Samuel Huntington, Thomas McKean, John Hanson and Elias Boudinot. The four you named came later. I am not being picky, but this goes to the issue of errors in the questions which then give misleading poll results.
    Also, technically Thomas Jefferson is not the main author of the Declaration of Independence. Congress gave the task of drafting the declaration to a committee, composed of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman.

    Posted by: edwardallen54 | July 3, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

    I thought Herbie Hancock write the Declaration of Independence.

    Posted by: johng1 | July 3, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

    An informed electorate is essential to democracy.

    Which makes me wonder what form of government America has today.

    Posted by: kcx7 | July 3, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

    The United States, as it stands today, didn't win its independence from Britain. The first 13 colonies did. If you live in the Southwest your immediate past ruler was Mexico. If you live in Puerto Rico, it was Spain. If you live in Alaska, it was Russia. If you live in Hawaii, you didn't win your independence, you lost it. The 13 colonies story is just part of the story of US independence.

    Posted by: nslator | July 3, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

    Care1: no, this is not the result of NCLB. Plenty of adults remember a history teacher who was hired as a coach and given a history class on the theory that "anyone can teach history--all you do is assign the questions at the end of the chapter." Some of my friends and colleagues tell stories of history teachers who showed football films, who used football questions as extra credit questions on the exams, and so on. In my substitute teaching this year, I discovered that if I was filling in for a male history teacher, the decorations in the room consisted not of posters about the subject but of sports photos and newspaper clippings about the team he coached. I didn't find this with female teachers or male teachers of English or science, even when they were coaches.

    Students aren't being taught history because we really don't care if they learn history.

    Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 3, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

    There is no value in academia. Plenty of B.A.'s are waiting tables, though at least they display proper courtesy and decorum.

    We're being taken care of by a paternalistic government, so we stopped taking any initiative a long time ago.

    As the boss would say (an inviolate rule of any boss), "All you have to know and do is your JOB!".

    Posted by: veerle1 | July 3, 2010 9:32 PM | Report abuse

    Anybody want to bet that unionized public school teachers scored worse on that survey than the general public?

    Posted by: thebump | July 3, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

    @scott59...

    who could ID the 1st 4 presidents in order? just about anyone who went to elementary school when I did, in the early 1960s, I would bet...

    the Dumbing Down of America is not imagined ...

    Posted by: fendertweed | July 3, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

    Awesome posts nslator & edwardallen54!!
    You both must have been homeschooled?

    Posted by: Sharon_6441 | July 3, 2010 11:05 PM | Report abuse

    Would A Jolly Man Make A Jolly Visitor? Washington Adams Jefferson Madison Monroe Adams (JQ) Jackson Van Buren.
    Thank you to my 8th grade history teacher.

    This all surprises me, actually, because I seem to remember learning the same American history in early elementary school, as well as 4th grade (granted, this is state history year, but VA history pretty much IS US history- it's all colonial stuff), 5th grade, probably 6th grade, definitely 7th grade, in "civics" in 8th grade, and then again in US Gov't in 10th grade and American History in 11th grade. I always thought we had American history overload. It always annoyed me that we never learned anything about what happened from about 1980 on... my parents will mention something from the 80's or early 90's, and be totally scandalized that I have no idea what they're talking about... but I was either not born or not old enough to know what was going on, and it's not old enough to be worth teaching as "history", so I remain ignorant.

    Posted by: sarahee | July 4, 2010 1:01 AM | Report abuse

    Sharon_6441: I'm 100% the product of public schools and colleges and I'm a public school teacher.

    thebump: I'll take that bet. How many public school teachers do you talk to on a regular basis?

    fendertweed: in what sense does it help you be an informed, active citizen to be able to list off the early presidents in order?

    sidewiththekids: our coach-history-teacher is excellent and his room is papered with history posters and student work. But you're right, the powers that be would rather we didn't know history because they couldn't get away with the same old tricks over and over.

    Posted by: nslator | July 4, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

    sarahee: You're right. Historians say that there's a 20-year gap in everyone's historical knowlege.(For me it's the post-WWII era.)

    Teachers don't teach this period because (1) it isn't in the texts and too many only teach the texts, and (2) they remember it, don't think of it as history, and don't realize their students don't remember it.

    (This is why in small towns you may be given directions to "turn left where the car dealership used to be.")

    Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 5, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

    Here we go again. Everybody thinks that they know history. Doesn't make any difference if you were educated in history, or for that matter even liked the subject. After reading some of the posts above, such as "show off my history knowledge by telling who the first four presidents really were" and "sectionalizing the areas of the U.S. that won their independence by date", this blog makes a lot of sense to me. I have a buddy who thinks he knows all there is to know about history. Doesn't know jack actually, and his degree was in business, but he has a loud mouth and a lot of opinions. History is the only subject that I know of besides maybe art that is so open to interpretation, and for sure history is now in the hands of the politicians, who with no research at all can turn it into the great American propaganda course for the school kids. Of course, I received my degree in History in the early 70s, taught by a mixture of FDR Democrats and 50s Happy Days Republicans. But I did have to do research, which so many amateur "historians" only know of as listening to AM talk radio. I'm to the point where I think we should quit trying to teach history and just let the corporations, theologians, militia groups and cable news talkers drop by the schools with propaganda pamphlets, DVDs, or whatever and just call it history. Jay Leno can administer the standardized test on a street corner.

    Posted by: rtinindiana | July 6, 2010 2:39 AM | Report abuse

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