The American Revolution Center just released a survey that questioned adults on their knowledge of early American history, and said the results were "alarming."
It turns out grown-ups don't know any more than students. Worse, they don't know what they don't know--or won't admit it. When asked to grade themselves on their knowledge, 89% of 1,001 adults polled this summer believed they could pass a basic test on the American Revolution. Only 17% , however, actually passed the test, which consisted of 27 multiple-choice questions about the key documents, people, events and beliefs of the Revolution.
The average score? Just 44%.
Alarming, yes--but the ARC survey also tells a more curious tale, not about what we Americans don't know, but rather about who knows what. The survey-masters parsed the data by income, age, educational level, geography, gender and, perhaps most interesting, political party. On that score, the data reinforce the Great Divide. Almost across the board, Republicans knew more than Democrats, and so did Independents.
That's doubly funny, because before the test, 14% of Democrats gave themselves an A, vs. 8% for Republicans and 10% for Independents. Oops. (Two percent of Democrats gave themselves an F vs. none for Republicans and 5% for Independents.)
In hopes of forestalling brickbats, let me state here that I am a longtime Independent. (And in the interest of full disclosure, men outscored women overall, though not on every question.)
Obviously, the scores weren't great for anyone--the average score for Republicans was only 47%, vs. 45% for Independents and 42% for Democrats. The only groups that scored higher than 50% overall were those earning more than $100,000 a year (55%) and those with a college education (52%).
Need I also state here that this article is going to be laden with numbers? So if arithmetic troubles you more than history, you may want to stop here, though then you would miss some fascinating details.
For example, the answer to one question where Democrats outshone both Republicans and Independents was "Shays' Rebellion." ("Which event most directly encouraged the states to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787?") Now, that may be because Massachusetts, where the rebellion took place, has a lot of Democrats. Or perhaps Democrats simply have an affinity with the word rebellion--in the same way that far more Republicans (and Independents) know that the Constitution establishes the U.S. as a republic rather than a direct democracy. (Eleven percent of Democrats answered "oligarchy" on that question.)
But here's a shocker: A higher proportion of Democrats (60%) said, rightly, that Alexander Hamilton was the first Treasury secretary than Republicans (50%) or Independents (59%). A case of know thy enemy?
Very few people, by the way, know the name of our first Chief Justice--only 11%. Poor John Jay.
Do we, as a whole, know anything about the Revolutionary period? Yes. We know "We the People," "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," the 1770s, 13, France and Thomas Paine-- questions so simple I'm betting I don't have to state them here. (If you need to look, the entire survey and results are posted online.)
The American Revolution Center, a Philadelphia-based group that plans to create the first national museum commemorating "the entire story of the American Revolution," clearly commissioned the study to prove its raison d'etre. The survey also asked respondents if they want to learn more about the Revolution. The great majority said yes--73% of Republicans, 66% of Independents, 64% of Democrats. And the higher the income, the greater the yearning for more knowledge--73% of those making more than $100,000 a year, 67% for those making $50,000 to $99,000, and 65% for those making less than $50,000.
So, perhaps sadly, ARC has its marching orders. Most American indicated that they stopped learning about the Revolution when they finished school--which leaves a huge pool of people who might be lured to its future home in downtown Philadelphia, not far from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.
Judith H. Dobrzynski writes about business and the arts for many publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and blogs at artsjournal.com/realcleararts.