Ignorance of History and Politics

April 9th, 2010

By Tom Carter

I just read a depressing report about the appalling lack of knowledge of American history and politics among young people.  This isn’t really new information, but every time I read about the problem it gets more discouraging.

Students leaving high school and entering university score at around 50 percent on a test administered during the past five years by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.  Worse, they finish their university studies and, on average, score only 54 percent.  Universities are obviously doing a poor job of training students in these essential subjects.

Some of the best-performing universities are smaller, less-than-elite schools that you may have never heard of, such as Rhodes College, Calvin College, Marian College, and Concordia University.  Some of the worst turn out students who know less in these subjects than they did when they entered — universities like Johns Hopkins, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown, and Virginia.

No university’s seniors got above an average score of 69 percent on the test.

You can see the questions on the test and take it yourself at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute website.  As you go through the test, remember the numbers cited above.

There are a few questions that are a bit obscure, but overall these are facts that high school students should know, not to mention university graduates.  And it doesn’t matter whether students are studying hard sciences or liberal arts — this kind of knowledge is as important as reading, writing, and the ability to do basic math.

Maybe it would be a good idea to use this test, or a similar test, as a qualification for voting.  That won’t happen, of course, because Republicans and Democrats alike would be adamantly against it.  They’d give various reasons, but the real problem would be that neither party could afford to lose so many votes.


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9 Responses to “Ignorance of History and Politics”



  1. larry |

    You answered 28 out of 33 correctly — 84.85 %
    Rednecks know history pretty good!!!


  2. Tom |

    “You” means yourself, right? Well, redneck or not, you went to school at a time when baseline education was more effective than it is today. One secondary effect of a good basic education is that it motivates people to continue learning after formal education has eneded, and I’m afraid that many people don’t have that motivation these days.


  3. Clarissa |

    Great post, Tom! And I really loved the quiz, too. I got 27 out of 33. :-) This means there is a room for me to grow intellectually.

    I’m not surprised how low students score, though. Not only did my freshmen have trouble remembering the year of the US Declaration of Independence, most of them couldn’t identify the century it took place. Several students were convinced that the US fought on the side of Germany in World War II. Only one student knew what the Marshall Plan was about. And none of the students had the slightest clue as to what the Supreme Court did and why it was important.


  4. Tom |

    Clarissa, it’s sad that the students you’re talking about are probably pretty representative of that slice of the population. High schools may be a lost cause, to some extent, but at least universities can teach some basic history and civics. It’s a wasteful kind of remedial education — kids should already be prepared when they reach the university level.

    According to the data, some of the most elite and expensive schools perform the worst in this regard. I think if I were the parent of a kid going to college, I’d take this into account before deciding where to spend all that money.


  5. Clarissa |

    I agree that remedial education at the college level is a sad reality. I often feel that my time is wasted in explaining some very basic things that students should know already.

    This happens with a variety of subjects. I was very surprised to discover that my Yale students had no idea what an adjective is. And my students at Cornell had no idea what the words “lyrical poetry” mean. They also thought that Spanish belongs to the Romance group of languages because “it is so romantic.”

    What is happening in high schools??


  6. Brian Bagent |

    31/33. May sound like sour grapes, but the two I missed were poorly worded. #30 assumes a Keynesian economic model, and we know how poorly that model works.


  7. Brianna |

    Same score here. I even missed 30, for pretty much the same reason (silly me, I assumed that politicians were actually thinking of HOW they’d pay for all that spending). Don’t think it’s fair to assume the test writers were assuming a Keynesian model, so much as it’s fair to say that the test takers assumed the politicians would be thinking of the Keynesian model. The test writers actually seemed to have a bit of a free-market bent to me.

    Test helps explain though just why so many young people are various stripes of Lefty; you can’t support something you know nothing about.


  8. Tony |

    I’m British, I got 87.88% and I still think certain of the questions were matters of opinion! :)


  9. Tom Carter |

    Tony, you’re obviously better informed and educated on American politics and history than many people in the former colonies. I’d be interested, though, to know which of the questions you think are “matters of opinion.”


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