By George Nethercutt
Newsweek published an article months ago entitled “How Dumb Are We?” It addressed the results of a 20-question survey to 1,000 American adults, testing their knowledge of basic American history and posing the same questions that immigrants must answer in order to become American citizens. The results were disappointing—and illuminating. Too many Americans don’t know basic American history and the circumstances, governing principles and developments that have made our country what it is today. Such findings require national attention.
In 2008, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) administered a survey to 2,500 American adults, testing their knowledge of basic American history, economics, world affairs and government. The results were dismal: Every participant flunked the test. It gets worse -- those who admitted serving in public office scored five points lower than the average American adult.
But it’s not just adults; in 2006, ISI tested 14,000 students from 50 universities across America, and asked them 60 multiple-choice questions, testing their knowledge of government, history, foreign affairs and economics. Students from 49 universities failed the survey. Only the bright young minds at Harvard could muster a passing D+. Similarly, the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered by schools under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education, showed that 4th, 8th and 12th graders are woefully under-educated about American history and government, rendering them civically illiterate.
Historian David McCullough once spoke about returning to his alma mater, Yale University, to talk with students. When he asked, “Who can tell me who George C. Marshall was?”, only a few of the students could answer correctly. One student reportedly inquired, “Wasn’t he the guy who invented martial law?” McCullough thoughtfully concluded that many of today’s students are like “cut flowers — bright and refreshing, but without roots.”
The sad fact is that too many students, adults and public officials don’t know the story of America, its history and lessons nor the principles which have guided our nation for over 235 years. Harvard students and I are taking steps to change that sorry condition.
The Harvard Civics Program connects students with fifth graders in Boston to teach them more about the United States and its system of government. Harvard students and I are devising a test for federal candidates that will be modeled on the same immigrant citizenship test that foreigners seeking American citizenship must take. It’s not rocket science —i t’s just basic American history and knowledge necessary to contribute to our free and progressive society.
Most of us are familiar with Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segment, in which The Tonight Show host asks ordinary Americans basic civics questions. We may slap our heads and chuckle at the ignorance of those who fail to answer simple questions about American history or current events. Yet, most viewers acknowledge that Americans ought to have basic knowledge about our country. At Harvard, we are developing a similar program and hope that Harvard students can compete satisfactorily when questioned about basic American facts, concepts and information. Arguably, the thousands of immigrants who seek American citizenship each year from other countries are smarter about the United States than those of us who are born here with automatic American citizenship. And that’s too bad.
Perpetuating American ideals, knowing our national story and having principled leaders knowledgeable about where our nation has been throughout its history, will help us all gain more studied opinions of where we’re headed in this new century and how much progress we’ve made -- as a nation and as a people. Knowing about America makes us all better Americans.
Former US Representative George Nethercutt of Washington is a fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics.