Blogs > HNN > How Little the Public Knows About History

Apr 9, 2004 12:23 pm

How Little the Public Knows About History

In early March, the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey discovered that only 43 percent of 634 adults questioned could correctly identify President Herbert Hoover. Twelve percent confused him with long-time FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Four percent linked his name to Hoover Dam in Nevada. Three percent associated the former Chief Executive with a brand of vacuum cleaner. Among those closest to their school years, aged 18 to 29, only 38 percent could identify Hoover in a political context.

The same survey discovered that only one out of five could connect actress Jane Fonda with the Vietnam War. (So calling John Kerry “Hanoi John” is obviously falling on deaf ears.) Nine percent of those surveyed connected Fonda to her exercise videos. Seventeen percent gave no answer at all.

There was some huffing and puffing about these findings in the elite media. But as one who taught in colleges with open door admission policies for more than three decades, I yawned at the survey. Nothing new here.

I discovered over the years that in survey classes freshmen and sophomores knew virtually nothing of the past, even the history of their own country. Their knowledge of current events was almost as dim. They were not alone. Historian Paul Gagnon of the University of Massachusetts recently reported, “Secondary and college students, and indeed most of the rest of us, have only a feeble grasp of politics and a vague awareness of history, especially the political history of the United States and the world.” Studies of eighth-graders and seniors at fifty top colleges and universities reveal appalling ignorance. (See The new book Deliberation Day, by Bruce Ackerman and James S. Fishkin, concludes, “If six decades of modern public opinion research establish anything, it is that the general public’s political ignorance is appalling.”

For more than two decades, I gave a survey lecture on the meaning of Left and Right, telling students that this was vital knowledge in understanding the recent past and contemporary affairs. After explaining the basic differences for some 45 minutes, I would ask the class to submit names of famous people in our own time in order to place them on the ideological scale. Inevitably, there was silence. No one could think of anyone famous, outside of show business, except the president. Class discussion at this academic level was extraordinarily difficult to evoke.

Even worse, the vast majority of the young people in class had no desire to learn. Their approach to the survey course was quite simple: Tell me how much of this junk I have to memorize in order to pass. Linking the past to the present, one of the historian’s most valuable contributions, proved fruitless as virtually no one cared about either the past or present. What mattered was getting a degree, your ticket to the middle class, that indispensable sheet of paper that made you manager of the local MacDonald’s rather than just a lackey who asks if you want fries with the order. If the survey class involved any appreciable reading assignments, they either were ignored or students disappeared, often without even dropping the course. By the dawn of this century, my survey students were openly refusing to read even a single book.

The upper division history majors proved little better. They had seemingly forgotten almost everything they were supposed to learn in the survey courses. President Zachary who? Was McKinley before or after Coolidge? The New Deal was in the Thirties, right? They had firm opinions, of course, largely echoing the line virtually all of their professors had given them about sexism, racism, homophobia, and the like. But facts? Forget it. One senior told me, “I don’t do dates.”

One year, late in my career, I managed to fight through faculty roadblocks and offered a course in the history of American religion. I spent the entire semester explaining the most basic Sunday School terminology. Religion was something wholly outside student experience and of little serious interest. New Age was as foreign to them as Puritanism, Vatican II as strange as the Reformation.

On religion and the American public, see George Gallup, Jr. and Jim Castelli, The People’s Religion: American Faith in the 90’s, and One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society by Barry A. Kosmin and Seymour P. Lachman. The former book documents “a nation of biblical illiterates.” Only four in ten Americans know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Three in ten teenagers do not know why Easter is celebrated. Fewer than half of all adults can name the four Gospels of the New Testament.

For those who seek to consult the public on matters of grave importance to the nation, I suggest that they try to learn what it means to be an average American. Watch some prime time television. Spend a week in a local high school. Glean the topics of conversation in bars and barber shops. Visit a class in Mass Communications at the average college. (Of more than 4,000 institutions of higher education in America, only a couple of hundred, at most, have high admission standards). Find out what most people depend upon for their information. See how many people can correctly date World War II, give the population of the city they live in, or tell you where their grandmother was born. And then read the results of those polls that ask about the seriousness of global warming, America’s internationalist perspective, the image of France, proper levels of U.S. defense spending, and Richard Clarke’s testimony on counterterrorism. To judge American foreign policy, you should at least be able to identify the Secretary of State and locate Iraq on a map. How many can?

The above is not a general statement about public virtues, of which there are many. It is not a reflection upon the futility of democracy, for no system is preferable. This is a statement of fact about public knowledge. Let us not pretend that most people know more than they actually do. Politicians and media leaders, for example, should be less eager to whip out the latest public opinion poll about the role of America in the Middle East, because most of those polled surely could not accurately define the Middle East or give you a cogent sentence about Islam. This commentary is not about snobbery. It’s about reality.

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Richard Croker - 3/14/2005

Are you ready to be genuinely ticked off? Cause I'm fixin' to tick you off. Americans don't know their history because historians don't know how to TEACH history. Period. A liturgy of dates, documents and dead people is going to spark the interest of absolutely no one with a soul. History is about PEOPLE. Real people. People who love and feel pain and worry about their children and grieve over the deaths of loved ones. Take your students into the very heart of Abraham Lincoln and feel his self doubt and anguish and frustration. Grieve with Robert E. Lee over the death of his beloved Annie. Historians seem to take a perverse joy in performing a surgical passionectomy on the most dramatic stories ever told. Put the passion back -- give us heroes and villans -- allow us to live in the drama of the moment and the world will very quickly learn where it came from.
Richard Croker
Author "To Make Men Free"

Daniel B. Larison - 4/14/2004

The only credible defense for universal suffrage is that a fully enfranchised citizenry will be able to fulfill the function of well-informed minorities through a sufficient level of education and civic duty. This was once the idea behind universal education, and if the advocates of this system saw what it had wrought they would never forgive themselves.

There are a number of other pious arguments for why everyone 'should' have the right to vote, but no one can demonstrate that this produces a more effective government in a purely technocratic sense or a less intrusive government in the libertarian/conservative sense, much less a more just government in a Christian sense. Liberals and socialists could very easily make the same complaint. The only argument universal suffrage representative democracy has going for it is that 'the people' are actually more capable of running the government through their representatives than if they had no direct say. It is based on the idea that founding a government on consent will be more liable to avert abusive government because ordinary people will reject the usurpation of their rights (since this has been disproven long ago, I suggest alternative systems be considered quickly). This presupposes that they care about such rights, or that they know what rights are (or, perhaps more importantly, what they are not). An ignorant and spoiled people, such as Americans are, neither care nor know. Is it any wonder that they tolerate illegal wars, excessive government and intrusive policing? The main source of political outrage, even among the ostensibly "educated" or well-informed minorities, seems to come only from the fact that it is the other fellow's party that is committing the colossal errors and illegalities. That is supposed to somehow be a sign that the system is working, but excuse me if I don't see it.

The hard core of our present system is one of intense, minority-driven factions alternating the exercise of power in fairly predictable fashion until the arrogance of one faction incites the other to greater competition and intensity, all of which is wrapped in the soft, flabby and ridiculous veneer of electoral cycles, which unfortunately still do have some effect (very little of it good). In that sense, America is a giant version of a royal court, in which the media raises up and casts down favourites as it will, and the otherwise uninformed and rather buffoonish public reacts according to the suggestions of these media outlets by picking one or the other. This system was created by way of democracy (at some point, the managerial state was consented to by repeated elections and so becomes the fault of the democratic system that gave it birth), though it has been doing a fine job of devouring whatever was once good in that system, and the sooner we get rid of its support (i.e., democracy) the sooner we can also be free of its abuses.

I would argue strongly that ordinary people are far more capable of understanding their interests and needs on a local or even state level, and perhaps on such a level people might be well-informed enough to make responsible decisions. But to give someone or a group of people the power to unseat national governments when those people know next to nothing of the relevant information on which to base such a decision is to engage in the pointless worship of a mythical 'wisdom of the people' that does not exist. The wisdom of the people is the wisdom concerning their own affairs and their own customs; leave most affairs at a level where most can be relatively better informed, and you might have a chance of preserving participatory government.

A rising generation that knows nothing but the daft slogans of pundits, if they even know these, cannot articulate, defend or really understand any political vision, to say nothing of traditional American political ideas. Such people should not have the privilege of voting, and if that is not Prof. Reeves' conclusion from this catalogue of American ignorance then I would have to ask why it isn't. I would submit that this system of popular government, in its good times and in its bad, has never had much success in either governing well or refraining from unnecessary government, and this is perfectly consistent with its popular nature. It was not simply from 'snobbery' and personal resentments that classical philosophers saw the problems in democracy. It really does not work by most reasonable standards of how a good government should work, and Prof. Reeves has provided a fine set of examples of some of the reasons why it does not.

As for the striking ignorance of Americans about basic elements of Christianity, this is perhaps least surprising of all. Where would any of the rising generation have learned these things? From their parents, if from anyone, but a whole generation was brought up under the notion that teaching children religion was to force it upon them and cause all sorts of mental anguish--the idiocy of this position, if only from a simply cultural and educational point of view, should be clear by now. Education about Christianity is forbidden in school, and among secular Americans it is meaningless and so it is ignored, when it is not being mocked. This, for once, was not the direct product of democracy as such, but its fruits have been tolerated by two generations of 'the people', which may suggest that my optimistic sentiments about popular attachment to tradition are perhaps too generous.

Perhaps the only thing that might save democracy from the uninformed crowds' own ignorance is the equally amazing disinterest among vast sections of the same people in participating in government. Actually, it isn't all that amazing--why care about something of which you know nothing? In this way, their sheer disconnectedness from their own political affairs is helping to mitigate the damage that such obviously unprepared people would do if they began casting votes.

FDennis Sentilles - 4/9/2004

In my class on Differential Equations -- whose students are easily in the top 5% or so of students at this large public university -- I do an application I call "Swords vs. Plowshares", showing how spending on swords (non-productive use of resources) rather than plows (productive use of resources) can run down an economy. I saw many good reasons to use this phrase -- a soft touch to my implicit criticism of our current priorities, an implied long-view perspective, etc. -- until I learned one day that not a single student in my class had ever heard the phrase. Twice a year now, for over twelve years, I have first asked my class about the phrase before working out the application : in all those years I have not had even one student who had even a vague idea of the phrase or its origins.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/2/2004

I have had better luck than you with the willingness of some of my students to learn (though the truly interested are indeed a minority). However, I must agree with your conclusions concerning general knowledge.

For most students in my World survey, Christianity and Buddhism are equally unknown (though they think they know something about the former). I am absolutely thrilled to get a devout Christian who has actually read the Book (or any one chapter. I'm not choosy). Perhaps Mel Gibson's magnum opus will stimulate some learning in this regard, though I gather that the sacrifice is without clear purpose, if one only knows what is in the movie.

Concerning Vietnam,what most seem to know is this equation, Vietnam=trouble.
I am always a bit amused as I, ex anti-war protestor, have to spend much of my time trying to help students understand how logical and moral the involvement seemed to most Americans. But on this subject, at least, I do get a fair amount of interest, particulalry from students who have close relatives who fought. To see them get a slighlty better understanding is quite satisfying.

On the Middle East, I have actually been incorporating a bit of 20th century middle east history into my US survey (please don't ask me what I've had to cut out to do this). My hope is not to bring them up to speed in 3 lectures, but the give the more curious enough background that they can build on it given the opportunity or another course. Again, I do see some learning, though it is hard to tell how much.

I guess I do see enough interest to buoy my hopes and to keep my energy up.