History is bunk, Henry Ford famously said, and it’s certainly true that there’s a lot to debunk. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation set out to find out how much Americans actually know about the history of their country, and how its institutions work, and learned that as many as a third of us don’t know very much.
Only one in three Americans could pass a multiple choice test, with questions taken from the U.S. Citizenship Test required of legal immigrants seeking to become American citizens. Passing the test requires getting only 60 percent of the questions correct, but even that low bar is an obstacle that many can’t surmount. Sad. But those who do pass the test often know more than Americans born here, who aren’t required to know anything.
Only 13 percent of those surveyed by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation know when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, with most thinking it must have occurred in 1776. The correct answer is 1788, when New Hampshire became the 9th of the 13 states to ratify after a difficult and sometimes bitter struggle. The Founding Fathers were a contentious lot, who didn’t concern themselves with arguments over who wrote what in whose high-school yearbook or who threw an ice cube at someone in a tavern, perhaps because there were neither high schools nor ice cubes in that time when life was simpler and in many ways easier.
More than half of the respondents didn’t know which nations the United States fought against in World War II. (For the millennials, the correct answer was that it was notably Germany and Japan.) Despite the media spotlight on all things Supreme Court, 57 percent of those surveyed did not know how many justices serve on the nation’s highest court.
The survey, conducted for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation by Lincoln Park Strategies, an analytic research firm, reveals several interesting examples of what Americans sometimes think they know, but don’t. Seventy-two percent of respondents were not sure which states were part of the original 13. Only 1 in 4 could correctly identify one thing Benjamin Franklin was famous for, and more than a third thought he invented the lightbulb. Only 1 in 4 knew why the American colonists fought the British in the American Revolution. One in 8 said Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower led Union troops in the Civil War, and nearly 1 in 10 said he commanded the Americans in the Vietnam War. A few stragglers in Current Events 101 said the Cold War was about climate change, which seemed logical, we suppose. It can get cold on winter nights, but why go to war about it?
“With voters heading to the polls next month, an informed and engaged citizenry is essential,” says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. “Unfortunately this study found the average American to be woefully uninformed regarding America’s history and incapable of passing the U.S. Citizenship Test. It would be an error to view these findings as merely an embarrassment. Knowledge of the history of our country is fundamental to maintaining a democratic society, which is imperiled today.”
Indeed, knowledge of American history is more than an academic exercise. There’s the future to think about. “Americans need to understand the past in order to make sense of a chaotic present and an inchoate future,” Mr. Levine says. “History is both an anchor in a time when change assails us and a laboratory for studying the changes that are occurring. It offers the promise of providing a common bond among Americans in an era in which our divisions are profound and our differences threaten to overshadow our commonalities.”
The survey, to no one’s surprise, found that old fogies know more than millennials. Americans 65 years old and older scored best, with 74 percent answering at least six in 10 questions correctly. Under the age of 45, only 19 percent passed the exam. But those old folks with a knowledge of history rarely know who pop culture icons are married to at the moment, so everything evens out.
Most Americans of a certain age learned American history by mostly memorizing dates, names and events. That method has limitations but it has the advantage of being respectful of facts. Next year the Woodrow Wilson Foundation will introduce a new way to teach history. We look forward to hearing about it. Anything that reveals the fascinating and wondrously unexpected story of America will be all to the good. But we must be careful not to substitute new bunk for old bunk.