Historical Illiteracy

I am busy updating my English composition syllabi for the next semester and I came across the following 2008 Civics Quiz.  Although I teach English literature and composition, historical events are often alluded to in the texts and over the years I have had to give historical background information to my students.

Naturally, I felt compelled to answer the questions established by the Intercollegiate Student Institute American Civic Literacy Program who, for the past five years, has attempted to measure how well colleges and universities are transmitting American core values and history.

The results from the schools of higher learning are very discouraging.  This confirms the findings of David McCullough, who, in a 1995 address at the National Book Awards Ceremony in New York warned about the steady decline of historical knowledge among American students. He wrote in "Why History? Remarks by David McCullough in Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, how "a young woman told [him] how glad she was to have attended [his] lecture, because until then, she explained, she had never realized that the original thirteen colonies were all on the eastern seaboard."  This student was from an Ivy League university!

Then in 2000 there was an additional flurry of activity when the New York Times published this examination to test its readers' knowledge.  The clarion call to action was rung yet again when McCullough offered the following. As the 2003 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities he wrote that "I don't think history should ever be made to seem like some musty, unpleasant pill that has to be swallowed solely for our civic good.... [f]or almost anyone with the normal human allotment of curiosity and an interest in people, it is a field day.... [I] would say history is a larger way of looking at life."

Yet, here we are in 2010 where in Massachusetts, a school now issues permission slips for the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and my own students repeatedly display abysmal ignorance about basic American history.  This semester alone, my students did not know when the American Revolution occurred, who Dwight D. Eisenhower was and most astonishing, who the President was during the Civil War.

In fact, according to the findings of the ICI group, when tested as freshmen, "half of the incoming [college] freshmen tested fail the 60-question multiple choice [history] quiz."  Three years later they have learned very little, with seniors scoring a mere four percent higher.  In fact, "no school, not even Harvard or Yale, got above a 69 percent average among seniors.  Worse still, in some schools, students did less well coming out than going in."

The idea that elite schools did well has been laid to rest.  They flunked. Instead small schools such as Rhodes College and Murray State fared much better.

Though the 2008 quiz was "not [deliberately] designed to test the civic knowledge of elected officials" an additional disturbing trend was found.  Citizens fared better than their elected politicians as this chart highlights.  Of particular note is the following:

In each of the following areas, for example, officeholders do more poorly than non-officeholders:

  • Seventy-nine percent of those who have been elected to government office do not know the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion for the U.S.
  • Thirty percent do not know that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are the unalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Twenty-seven percent cannot name even one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  • Forty-three percent do not know what the Electoral College does. One in five thinks it either "trains those aspiring for higher political office" or "was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates."
  • Fifty-four percent do not know the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Thirty-nine percent think that power belongs to the president, and 10% think it belongs to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  • Only 32% can properly define the free enterprise system, and only 41% can identify business profit as "revenue minus expenses."
On some questions, Americans who have held elected office do better than Americans who have not. They are a little more likely, for example, to recognize the language of the Gettysburg Address (23% to 21%) and to know that the question of whether slavery should be allowed to expand into new territories was the main issue in the Lincoln-Douglas debates (25% to 20%).

Officeholders and non-officeholders find it equally difficult to identify the three branches of government. Only 49% of each group can name the legislative, executive, and judicial.

The American Civic Literacy group has brought all this information together under the title of "Our Fading Heritage" -- how terribly apt and frightening.

Eileen can be reached at middlemarch18@gmail.com