At a time when the country simmers and boils with political passions, The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation has revealed a paradox: While many Americans angrily denounce the current state of affairs, most don’t know even rudimentary facts about their own government or the history of the United States.
“Only one in three Americans (36 percent) can actually pass a multiple choice test consisting of items taken from the U.S. Citizenship Test,” the foundation announced this week following a recent survey.
The findings would be amusing if they weren’t so dangerous. For instance, while a majority knew the cause of the Cold War, 2 percent of respondents blamed climate change. Really. Other eye-openers:
■ Almost three-quarters of those surveyed couldn’t identify the 13 original U.S. colonies.
■ Twelve percent believed Dwight D. Eisenhower led troops in the Civil War.
■ Fewer than a quarter knew why the colonists fought the Revolutionary War.
Scores were worst among younger Americans. Just 19 percent of those under the age of 45 mustered a passing mark of 60 percent.
The results mesh with previous surveys. Many Americans struggle with routine facts, such as naming the three branches of government. The 2014 National Assessment of Education Progress report found only 18 percent of American eighth-graders were proficient in U.S. history, and just 23 percent reached that level in civics.
Meanwhile, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reported in 2016, “The overwhelming majority of America’s most prestigious institutions do not require even the students who major in history to take a single course on United States history or government.”
Is it really any wonder, then, that many of the nation’s college campuses have become breeding grounds for young authoritarians hostile to the First Amendment and other cherished American ideals? Should it be any surprise that an increasing number of young people today prefer the siren song of collectivism to the free markets that made this country the most prosperous in the history of the world?
Threats to American democracy abound, some real, some imagined. Vast historical ignorance is in the former category and threatens to unravel the nation’s civic bonds while exacerbating divisions and minimizing past struggles, accomplishments and mistakes.
Understanding the way forward requires an appreciation for context and a knowledge of what went before. That entails more than the shallow emotional narcissism that so often dominates and drives debate in this social media age. Let’s hope it’s not too late.