Alumni | General Education

Citizens should know more about the U.S.

THE POST AND COURIER   |  February 21, 2019 by Editorial Board

Debates rage daily over basic U.S. civics and history. It turns out that many of us don’t know what we’re talking about.

Despite some people’s absolute certainty in their knowledge, a recent poll of 41,000 Americans found that only about 40 percent could pass a test consisting of 20 civics and history questions pulled from the U.S. citizenship test. The numbers were worse in South Carolina where just 34 percent passed the multiple-choice test, The Post and Courier’s Paul Bowers reported.

That could help explain some of the bizarre “facts” littered across social media.

Some may scoff at the value of such basic knowledge about the United States. They might see it as nothing more than useful information for trivia night. But that would be a mistake.

The head of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which conducted the poll as part of its American History Initiative study, correctly points to a troubling conclusion: This lack of basic knowledge leaves us untethered to facts, and unable to establish a common bond, during a particularly chaotic period of American life.

“Unfortunately, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has validated what studies have shown for a century: Americans don’t possess the history knowledge they need to be informed and engaged citizens,” Woodrow Wilson Foundation President Arthur Levine said in a news release.

Interest in learning about history is on the wane. Washington Post columnist Max Boot on Wednesday lamented the declining number of college students majoring in the subject, with some schools even canceling classes due to a lack of interest.

Certainly, other subjects can pick up some of the slack in teaching government and history, but there may be another factor in the declining enthusiasm for learning about our past. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation poll shows that “traditional methods of teaching American history — memorization of dates, names and events — have not been effective.” There’s no doubt that students learn differently today, and Mr. Levine’s group correctly advocates for changing the way history is taught to make it more relevant and interesting for students.

Mr. Boot noted some comical yet sad examples of historical ignorance found in a different survey from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. For instance, he said, the study noted that “more Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’ than could identify the Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” “more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place,” and “half of the respondents believed the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 were before the American Revolution.”

It’s important that more citizens have a good foundation in the country’s history to give context to what is happening today in America. It might not stop people from making outlandish claims on Twitter or Facebook, but if we insist that immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship know these things, shouldn’t we know them too?

Besides, if nothing else, knowing more U.S. history definitely would come in handy on trivia night.


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