U.S. students don’t know American history

June 14, 2011 • 4:09 pm

Foreigners always accuse Americans, with justice, of not knowing much about the rest of the world, but a new survey shows that they don’t know much about their own history, either.  According to a new government survey, only 20% of American fourth-graders (these are about ten years old) and 12% of high-school seniors (18 years old) are deemed “proficient” in American History.  Fewer than a third of eighth graders could identify any big advantage Americans had over the British in the Revolutionary War (do they know where it was fought?).

But the most appalling statistic, which I just heard on the evening news, is this: only 9% of fourth-graders could identify the man in a picture of Abraham Lincoln.  Why that’s doubly appalling is that they apparently haven’t looked at their money:

And yes, American ten-year-olds certainly have seen five-dollar bills.

62 thoughts on “U.S. students don’t know American history

  1. Some people just don’t give a shit and I suspect they’ll never care. I’m probably too pessimistic, but you grow up knowing these kind of people and it’s just depressing.

  2. That may well be true, but what you’re missing is the overwhelming conclusion is that the recent education reforms have been a rousing success.

    Yes, success.

    How so?

    Because no child has been left behind.

    Even the dain-brammaged idiotic psychopath-intraining is as well educated as the best and the brightest and therefore nobody has been left behind.

    “Mission accomplished.”


    1. And all we had to do was eliminate a few subjects to do it!

      However, as the sky seems to have been falling for years, I tend to be skeptical. There were plenty of mediocre students, parents, teachers and administrators before No Child Left Unscrewed. Plenty of good ones too. There still are. At best it just concentrated the crap.

  3. ~20yrs ago I was at a scientific meeting at Purdue (the organizer’s institution). It was easier, cheaper and quicker for me to rent a big Lincoln and drive there from Pittsburgh than fly, and I had a lot of fun doing that. The banquet was at the local historical society’s building, and afterward we looked around at what they had there.

    A Swedish friend happened to be standing beside me when I came upon a bust of Lincoln as a young man.

    Me: “Jan-Olov – do you know who that is?”

    J-O, without missing a beat: “Oh, I think his last name is Town Car.”

  4. People get good at compartmentalizing to avoid information overload and having to think about too many things at once, so by the time someone is 5 they’ve trained themselves not to think about money when they’re in history class or history class when they’re looking at money.

    It’s why so many of your work friends don’t recognize you at the store. Most people have to train themselves not to make connections between different contexts because they’re not smart enough to think about their whole life all at once.

    1. I’m almost metaphysically certain it’s not this.

      Any halfway decent teacher giving a lesson on Lincoln would mention the tributes we have to him, including the Lincoln Memorial and the images on the $5 bill and the penny.

      It’s more likely that our total disregard for education in the US is having the completely foreseeable outcome.

      1. I don’t understand what you’re trying to say. At first you explain how it can’t possibly be that teachers aren’t explaining that Lincoln is on the sawbuck, but then you close by blaming a “total disregard for education.” But what does that mean? How would a “disregard for education” cause fourth graders to forget who’s on the 5 dollar bill? It makes no sense.

        1. I’m disputing the idea you put forward that compartmentalization is to blame. People do compartmentalize, but since the any decent teacher would talk about the images of Lincoln on the money in the history class, it wouldn’t matter that the student doesn’t normally think about money at that time. It’s right there in front of them.

          The problem is that we keep making it harder and harder for teachers to do their job. That means it’s ever more difficult to get that halfway decent lesson about Lincoln, or any other topic, out to the students.

          1. Oh, I see why I was confused – you misunderstood the claim. I’m not claiming that they compartmentalize when they learn it, I’m claiming that they compartmentalize when they recall it. Most people don’t have the brains to have all their memories accessible to them all the time, so they only remember things they learned in class in a class context, they only remember the faces of people they work with in a work context, and so on. At least until they really concentrate.

            I’ve seen it over and over again. People who were my lab partner in chemistry suddenly have no recollection of the subject in physics. People who I work with several hours every day can’t put my name to my face when I meet them in the store. Kids who know exactly what the face of a 5 dollar bill looks like can’t remember where they’ve seen Abraham Lincoln’s face in history class.

            Most people, it seems to me, are restricting the scope of their recall. I can only presume that otherwise it’s too much for them to sort through.

            1. “most people”

              Try “all people”. Despite the fact that perhaps you feel you are elite, humans can and do need to compartmentalize simply to manage all that is in their head. In fact I would suggest that those who cannot compartmentalize are the ones who cannot keep their attention focused on the current points at hand.

              Now some people might compartmentalize a bit to much, or in the wrong place, however I don’t see casual compartmentalizing between money and history class as such a terrible thing.

              BTW, how many educated folks here could recognize more than a handful of US presidents from their pictures?

              1. I could recognize all the ones who are on money.

                You’re right, of course – everybody is doing this context cuing. That’s why memory priming works – it’s not all immediately accessible. But I think smarter people have broader contexts; they’re able to keep more of their memories handy at any one time. Or they’re better at swapping contexts.

                I read today a letter to the editor shaming people for hunting for food – why don’t they buy meat from the store, the writer asks, which was made there without harming animals? That has to be an example of context failure, since the sentence itself proves that they know meat is made from animals. But that knowledge isn’t accessible to them when the context is “grocery store.”

  5. In 1984 I took a job working in a large lab in a college town. One night we (I and about 7 female co-workers who were university students) were having a slow night and they wanted to play a trivial pursuit game (not the game but just me asking trivia questions). I thought I’d be easy on them, but they could not answer most of the questions. Two I remember with horror: Name 3 of the 4 Beatles (they couldn’t get one) and within a decade tell me when George Washington was President (one girl guessed 1920). I kid you not!

    Any hope I had for a nation of intelligent citizens disappeared that night. 🙁

  6. It annoys me when people in my country (Chile) accuse either Americans or Europeans of knowing next to nothing about the rest of the world; the standard joke is to accuse Americans of believing we Chileans still walk around naked, except maybe for some feathers adorning our heads. Sure, most Americans and Europeans know little about Chile; but Chileans know nothing at all about Nepal, Myanmar, Oman, Suriname, Botswana, Kazakhstan, etc.

    Tt is easy for us to know about the US, France, Italy, Germany, the UK, Spain and all the other countries we got most of our culture from. Most Chileans, however, fail to realise that, to an American or European, Chile is as insignificant as Myanmar is to us.

    Whether this is right or wrong is irrelevant. The fact is that the western world has been shaped by a few powers and superpowers, not by the underdogs.

      1. Well, Chileans know nothing about Chile either. For example, they can tell you we once went to war against Peru and Bolivia, but most certainly they cannot tell you the true reasons why we did. They can’t even sing their national anthem right, ffs! Part of the lyrics say the following:

        “You (Chile) shall either be the tomb of the free
        or the asylum against oppression”

        Ask any Chilean, however, and he/she will tell you that the mentioned lyrics say this:

        “Either the tomb shall be for the free,
        or the asylum against oppression”.

        In Spanish, the difference is a mere “s”:

        “o la tumba seráS de los libres”, against
        “o la tumba serÁ de los libres”.

        As you can see, the commonly sung lyrics make neither syntactic nor semantic sense. Unfotunately, that doesn’t prevent 90% of Chileans from singing nonsense.

        In summary, I don’t think Americans are especially ignorant of their own or other people’s history. It is just a stereotype.

        1. Well, isn’t that just because Chileans tend not to pronounce s at the end of words? When I last flew with Lan Chile, I had a very hard time understanding the Spanish announcements because the crew left out so many consonants.

          1. Ha! True, we Chileans have a deserved reputation for speaking (and writing) the worst Spanish anywhere. But not when singing…

            1. No offense, by the way. I actually learned Spanish from a Chilean teacher, but that did not help me on that flight.

  7. And this is how we get Sarah Palins and their ilk…
    When i first saw the video of Kelly Pickler on youtube (you can look it up) I thought it was a parody…. unfortunately it is true, and probably worse than we think.

    1. This person seems to be very popular in Youtube, so I can’t be really sure which video you’re referring to… Is it the one she’s surprised to find out that Europe is not a country?

      1. Yes, that was the one. I think she was competing on Smarter than a Fifth Grader, for charity. I was astounded that she knew she didn’t know, and didn’t care.
        Sarah seems to fall into the same category… there is no shame whatever in being ignorant, many are almost proud of it.
        One wonders how either of them graduated from elementary school, never mind high school.

  8. I’m in the process of becoming a certified history teacher and this breaks my heart. And I just heard my sister, who won History Student of the Year her senior year in high school, claim to have no idea who Karl Marx was and have no clue why she should. I feel like weeping.

    1. In the early ’90s, I was in a history class when a fellow student asked why, if Communism failed, should we have to learn about it?

      My head just about exploded. Oh, gee, why would we have to know about one of the major driving forces of history in the twentieth century? It couldn’t possibly have an effect on today, could it? Mind you, this was at most a couple years after the fall of the Soviet Union, probably less.

      By the way, thank you for becoming a teacher. I really can’t think of any less valued profession in this country, and I’m always grateful for people who are willing to do the job despite the crap we put you guys through.

      1. Wow, that’s pretty sad indeed. I guess the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, a nation-state driven by communist ideology, must’ve had no effect on the lives of people who lived during the 20th century. At least according to this individual. Again, sad.

        I appreciate the kind words. I can honestly say I’ve never been able to imagine myself doing anything else other than teaching youngsters about the human past. I’m certainly not doing it for the money or the adoration!

          1. Does anyone believe the Soviet Union was a communist society?

            Mind you communism is a bit like christianity – if less than perfect you’re obviously not doing it right.

            1. China is not even trying to get it right any more. They may call themselves communist, but they are a capitalist dictatorship, unless you want to completely disassociate words and their meanings. Could just as well believe that the “First Church of Christ, Scientist” is scientific. It’s in the name, isn’t it?

  9. Susan Jacoby, on book tour for her “The Age of American Unreason,” recounted (available on Youtube) stopping into a bar in NY city the evening of 09/11/2001 for a much needed restorative, and overhearing two young Wall Street types reflecting on the events of the day. If I correctly recall, these “youngsters” thought that the day’s events were somehow connected to December 7, 1941.

    1. Whenever Palin, Beck or one of the other Teabaggers makes inaccurate assertions about history, I usually think, “Just how stupid do they think we (the public) are?”

      Quite stupid enough, apparently.

  10. I know this. The big advantage the proto-USians had in the war of independence ( is that the war the British call the American war and the USians call the Revolutionary war? ) is Mel Gibson. After those nasty British killed Heath Ledger, Mel turned from pacifist to hard-arse revolutionary and kicked the Brits back to Britainland with butthurt. Mel also kicked the English hard in Scotland, but was drawn and quarted for the inflicted butthurt.

    It’s not Americans, because Chileans and Brazilians are Americans as much as USians. 😉

    1. I thoroughly agree with you, but thar’s a bunch of self-regarding, “exceptional,” “indispensible nation” (Madeleine Albright) Amuricun Philistines – especially east of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon line, who think they have a monopoly on the word “American.”

      1. It’s funny, if South America is not America, then South Australia is not Australia and neither is Western Australia. I live in Southern Australia, am I not Australian? If Brazil is in South America (granted it’s a separate continent, but it’s still part of the Americas) then aren’t Brazilians Americans?

        Don’t worry about Albright, the angel of death. Our host thinks appears to believe that Americans are USians and no more.

        1. Once, when I was living in Australia, my wife and I were introduced to someone with the qualifier “They’re American”. My wife and I automatically chimed in, “No, we’re Canadian!” to which our host said, “That’s in America, isn’t it?”

    2. No, the Brits call it, “The Colonial Rebellion of 1776-1781”. Or, at least they do at the Royal Naval Observatory at Greenwich.

  11. My 12 year old daughter asked me for $5, I told her that I would give her the $5 if she could name the president on the twenty dollar bill .. she said “Michael Jackson?” after laughing rather well, I gave her the $5 because I knew she would never forget who was on a $20 and a $5 all in one lesson. They are not interested in history unless we trick them. There is all sorts of weird things in history that help them remember. She remembers that Columbus’s son as governor would cut off natives hands when they didn’t pay their taxes. Kids remember stuff like that, not meaningless crap like some idiot sailor yelling out “Land Ho” in Italian from the crows nest in 1492, and everyone could stop eating shoes and have a banana.

    I asked her the name of the president on a $100 and she said it was President Benjamin Franklin … close enough for 12. She learned that from Slumdog Millionaire, which is a better geography lesson than Mrs Janes ever gave her. And George Hamilton is not on a $10.

    Teachers do not know how to make it interesting. The kids like hearing weird stuff like how the Egyptians get the brains out when they mummify. And what they do with the main organs so the body doesn’t rot. Now this conversation has places to go.

    It’s the teachers crappy teachers …. and the paltry salaries we pay them in our lower education in small-ville America.

    1. Actually, learning who Lincoln and Washington were was no trick at all when I was boy. That’s because there was no such thing as the odious “President’s Day”. We celebrated February 12 as Lincoln’s birthday and February 22 as Washington’s birthday. Literally every schoolchild knew who both were because as small children, there were little school skits in which these dates were commemorated and (often apocryphal) stories were taught to us about each of them. Very basic history lessons for children were sacrificed to make way for the 3-day weekend.

    2. “It’s the teachers crappy teachers”

      Yeah, kinda like Davis Guggenheim (author of the odious and dishonest film Waiting for Superman) apportioning all the blame for poor student performance to teachers.

      I’m married to a (extremely hard-working, accomplished) teacher in a public primary school. You have no idea of the demands and restrictions under which almost all teachers labor. Next year, her school of 700+ elementary students will have: No nurse, no aids (except for legally-mandated special ed aids), no assistant principal, no IT person (it requires a ticket to the district central scrutinizer to even get a DVD to play on their computers.) Unlike almost any other worker, she can’t even go to the bathroom when she needs to, so she has to be chronically dehydrated to avoid either deriliction of her duty or an accident!

      Her biggest headaches are parents: Who don’t feed their kids, don’t bathe them, don’t ensure that they do their homework, never read with/to them, never show up for conferences, allow their kids to stay up late, watching adult-rated movies, generally fail to socialize their kids.

      One (middle-class) parent asked her, “Why isn’t my daughter doing her homework?” [After biting back the appropriate response “I don’t know, I don’t live at your [fucking] house,” she said she didn’t know.]

      If I hear one more person blame teachers for their kids’ crappy performance, I’m gonna …

  12. It has been interesting to watch over the last 5-10 years how USAsian web sites have noticed the existence of the rest of the world. These days most sites will post to Australia, whereas in the past it was literally not an option. Postage is still often ludicrous, it’s quite common to find only express post available at horrendous cost, and the last purchase I made wanted to charge me $1.50 more for the slower option!! But nonetheless progress is being made if more slowly than I would like.

    1. Even if they do allow international shipping, many such sites will still force you to include a US state and zip code in your address. And that’s after you select a foreign country from the pull-down menu.

  13. I’m in Australia but must admit I was dumbstruck bored with all history until I was about 35, when I bought about 100 books on history & science to satisfy my answers to certain big questions in life. Not sure whether to apologize or explain the psychology of it 😉 I now even know a reasonable amount of American history but nothing matters unless you find some relevance. You can’t tell someone they should be interested in history, you need to find something (a question-there are plenty) that makes it relevant. The most fascinating discovery for me was that it’s not just a matter of finding out stuff everyone already knows (which is sort of an inherently boring aspect of facts & history) but that when you really dig deep on several interconnecting events you can come to an understanding that no one can summarize. Andy at you really have something useful.

    1. “Relevant” is a word thrown around in a lot of U.S. newspaper articles, letters to the editor, and op-eds about education, especially “21st Century” education. (As if there was some crucial threshold crossed between 1999 and 2001.) “Relevant” is hardly if ever defined. Apparently, what is “relevant” depends on the person. If an omniscient teenager avers to his elders that some person, place or thing from the past is not “relevant,” who is anyone to differ with him on the matter?

  14. Not a recent situation but a snowballing one dating back to education reforms of the late 60s and 70s. I graduated HS in 1976 in Baltimore and never had a US history class. Required credit was for social studies which emphasized current events. History was deemed irrelevant. US history in elementary school was patriotic high points. Abe Lincoln and George Washington were the only two historical figures I could recognize. They had holidays. History was also not required by a science major in college.

    Offsetting that though we were taught evolution and other science as a matter of fact. Religion was only referred to as humanity’s mythology for coping with unknown phenomena.

    Now more and more subjects are deemed irrelevant by one or another special interest group so mythology is once again trying to fill the gaps.

    I learned history first from Walter Cronkite. Later I self-taught undirectedly by reading classic literature, then by reading scientific histories, then political and military histories. Is there an equivalent today of “You are There” to engage kids and spur them on?

    Reading over this comment makes me feel old but I’ll post it anyway.

    1. I’m starting to feel “old” too. But I’m glad to have had the good fortune to have made it this far. Some don’t and, as Dawkins has eloquently reflected, a multitude never have the opportunity.

      (As my father died at age 36 when I was four, I had my depressing and doubtful days growing up, wondering if that would also be my lot. But once I got past 36, the load lightened.)

      As I occasionally riposte to teenage males who try to get in a dig at me about my age: “You do hope to live to at least my age, don’t you?”

      (On one occasion, a young man, temporarily distracted from his Rap and Hip-Hop-suffused iPod, replied, “Hell, no!” He had to try to get off some sort of zinger in response, and that’s all he could come up with. “Pride goeth before the fall.”)

    2. What you describe is a failing of your state and local standards. I went to HS in Washington in the 80’s and we learned local, world and US History. The history least likely to be emphasized was actually the most recent (oops we ran out of time).

      And if you were planning to go to college, it was likely that you would take advanced or AP courses in those subjects.

  15. In my day Texas students knew the history of Texas. Shell Oil Company had little red covered comic books which were given to all Texas students in about the 4th or 5th grade. It was all in there, and the last panel showed a straight, smooth highway where one could speed down to get around Texas.

    1. Was any mention made of the indigenous population of humans who had been there for thousands of years prior to European conquest?

  16. The problem is that social services like health care and education have to be paid for. Here in France health care and education are pretty good (and church state separation impeccable!) but we are crippled by the cost. If you want good services like quality education, it has to be paid for, somehow.

  17. Did you notice this little gem in the science section:

    12. Emissions of greenhouse gases from automobiles and factories are often cited as a cause of global warming. Automobiles and factories also emit solid particles such as smoke and ash.

    Explain how emissions of these solid particles could cause global cooling.

    Also only 51% of 12th grade students got this question correct:

    9. Which of the following is NOT a part of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection?

    Individuals in a population vary in many ways.
    Some individuals possess features that enable them to survive better than individuals lacking those features.
    More offspring are produced than can generally survive.
    Changes in an individual’s genetic material are usually harmful.

    1. 8th grade questions:
      14. Near the end of the Second World War, the United States military dropped atomic bombs on cities in

      1. China
      2. Germany
      3. Japan
      4. the Soviet Union

      only 60.91% got it right.

      9. Which of the following is most consistent with the modern theory of evolution?

      1. Parents pass their physical traits to their offspring; those offspring with traits that help them survive in the environment are able to reproduce.
      2. Parents change their physical traits in order to survive in the environment, then those parental traits are passed to their offspring.
      3. Life on this planet came from another planet far out in space.
      4. Living organisms have not changed for hundreds of millions of years.


  18. Guess that means Sarah Palin is representing majority of Americans with her limited (and mistaken) understanding of US history.

    Haw – haws 😀

  19. A ten-year-old might recognize a fiver, but I have my doubt about college students. Around here they pay for a freakin’ $1 coffee refill by swiping a credit card.

  20. My 7-year old son can ID Abe! But he has had a very diverse and intensive exposure to just about everything we can throw at him.

  21. I’m 62 years old, and these exact same complaints were floating around as long as I can remember. “Why Can’t Johnny Read” was published in 1955, the year I started kindergarten.

    There is a certain degree of ‘good old days’ thinking here, not unlike the golden age that conservatives and fundies long for.

    I think a lot of people forget how little they, or their friends knew at that age.

Leave a Reply