A survey released today by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only one in three Americans (36 percent) can actually pass a multiple choice test consisting of items taken from the U.S. Citizenship Test, which has a passing score of 60.
Here are some of the highlights (lowlights?) from the survey:
- Only 13 percent of those surveyed knew when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, even on a multiple-choice exam similar to the citizenship exam, with most incorrectly thinking it occurred in 1776.
- More than half of respondents (60 percent) didn’t know which countries the United States fought in World War II.
- 57 percent of those surveyed did not know how many Justices actually serve on the Supreme Court.
- Seventy-two percent of respondents either incorrectly identified or were unsure of which states were part of the 13 original states.
- Only 24 percent could correctly identify one thing Benjamin Franklin was famous for, with 37 percent believing he invented the lightbulb.
- Only 24 percent knew the correct answer as to why the colonists fought the British.
- Twelve percent incorrectly thought WWII General Dwight Eisenhower led troops in the Civil War; 6 percent thought he was a Vietnam War general.
- While most knew the cause of the Cold War, 2 percent said climate change.
The poll found significant differences in knowledge depending on age. Those 65 years and older scored the best, with 74 percent answering at least six in 10 questions correctly. For those under the age of 45, only 19 percent passed the exam.
Here’s what Foundation President Arthur Levine had to say about the results:
“With voters heading to the polls next month, an informed and engaged citizenry is essential. Unfortunately, this study found the average American to be woefully uninformed regarding America’s history and incapable of passing the U.S. Citizenship Test. It would be an error to view these findings as merely an embarrassment. Knowledge of the history of our country is fundamental to maintaining a democratic society, which is imperiled today.”
As I read the story and looked at the incorrect responses to the questions noted above, I wondered how I would do on the Citizenship Test. For example, I don’t know the exact year the U.S. Constitution was ratified, but if the multiple choice answers were pretty far apart (e.g., 1776, 1788, 1863, 1961), then perhaps I could have taken an educated guess on 1788.
So I found a practice test online and decided to give it a shot. The test consisted of 20 multiple choice questions. I found most of the questions fairly straightforward, and I scored a 20 out of 20.
The one question that I wasn’t quite sure about was one asking who was the President of the U.S. during WWI. The choices were Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt. The only answer I knew was incorrect was Franklin Roosevelt, and from there it was just a wild guess that I got lucky with.
I found the age gap in performance results concerning and wondered what it suggests. Are our schools not teaching civics anymore? Are young people simply not interested in knowing this information? If so, what happens when these people are old enough to vote?
First, will they vote and second, how valid are the election results when many of the people voting may not be informed about the issues and the history of many of the issues?
I’m not sure what the best solution is, but one possible approach would be to require all voters to pass this (or a similar) test before they are ready to vote the first time and then every 8-12 years afterward. For those who do not pass, study materials could be given to them and they could retake the test as soon as they are ready.
I think this approach would lead to a more informed electorate and would have people take their right to vote more seriously.
P.S. We all know that the Cold War was given that name because it took place during the winter. But maybe someday there could be a question on what caused the Hot War, and at that point in time perhaps climate change will be the correct answer.
P.S.S. Here is the link once again if you want to take the test.