Ronald A. Wolk: Who's buried in Grant's tomb? Our education system makes it difficult to care

Roundup: Talking About History

Polls have shown that a majority of Americans are poorly informed about politics, history, geography, and science.
This past summer, Today Show weatherman Al Roker did a “man on the street” survey in which he asked fewer than a dozen randomly chosen people questions only slightly more difficult than “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” The “poll” was totally unscientific, but not totally without meaning. It revealed what scores of scientific surveys have shown in the past—that a majority of Americans are abysmally ignorant of, ironically, much of the “stuff” they spent so many years learning in school.

When asked how many states there are, a few adults replied 52 or 51. Only one teenager could name the three branches of government. None of the adults knew what the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are called. Two people put George Washington in the White House during the Civil War, and another named Lincoln as our first president.

The respondents appeared to be average middle-class Americans and were honest enough to be slightly embarrassed about their ignorance. And all proudly gave correct answers to such important questions as “Who is Tom Cruise’s new girlfriend?” and “Who is Angelina Jolie now keeping company with?”

On the surface, the Today Show feature was amusing; on another level, it raises some provocative questions, especially given that many surveys over the years have produced results like Roker’s. Past polls have shown that a majority of Americans are poorly informed about politics, history, geography, and science. In their book What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters, Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter review 3,700 survey questions that were asked between 1940 and 1994. Among other disturbing discoveries, they made the following: In 1988, just 57 percent of those questioned could locate England on a map; in 1970, only 18 percent could identify the secretary of state; and in 1952, when Americans were supposedly well-versed in civics, just 27 percent could name two branches of the federal government....

[Why do people know so little?] ... Some argue that Americans just don’t care enough to make the effort to learn; we’re more interested in being entertained than in participating, in the frolicking of celebrities than we are in global warming.

Others believe—and I’m among them—that our schools’ obsession with memorizing content and coverage in the traditional curriculum is the main reason for Americans’ lack of knowledge. Without understanding why it was important to know this information or how we’d ever use it, most of us have nevertheless gone through school memorizing presidents, capitals, mountains, rivers, battles, generals, and everything else that’s useful for playing Trivial Pursuit....

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