Polls have shown that a majority of Americans are poorly informed about politics, history, geography, and science.
This past summer, Today Show weatherman Al Roker did a “man on the street” survey in which he asked fewer than a dozen randomly chosen people questions only slightly more difficult than “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” The “poll” was totally unscientific, but not totally without meaning. It revealed what scores of scientific surveys have shown in the past—that a majority of Americans are abysmally ignorant of, ironically, much of the “stuff” they spent so many years learning in school.
When asked how many states there are, a few adults replied 52 or 51. Only one teenager could name the three branches of government. None of the adults knew what the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are called. Two people put George Washington in the White House during the Civil War, and another named Lincoln as our first president.
The respondents appeared to be average middle-class Americans and were honest enough to be slightly embarrassed about their ignorance. And all proudly gave correct answers to such important questions as “Who is Tom Cruise’s new girlfriend?” and “Who is Angelina Jolie now keeping company with?”
On the surface, the Today Show feature was amusing; on another level, it raises some provocative questions, especially given that many surveys over the years have produced results like Roker’s. Past polls have shown that a majority of Americans are poorly informed about politics, history, geography, and science. In their book What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters, Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter review 3,700 survey questions that were asked between 1940 and 1994. Among other disturbing discoveries, they made the following: In 1988, just 57 percent of those questioned could locate England on a map; in 1970, only 18 percent could identify the secretary of state; and in 1952, when Americans were supposedly well-versed in civics, just 27 percent could name two branches of the federal government.
How do we explain this widespread lack of knowledge about matters that deeply affect our lives? Some argue that Americans just don’t care enough to make the effort to learn; we’re more interested in being entertained than in participating, in the frolicking of celebrities than we are in global warming.
Others believe—and I’m among them—that our schools’ obsession with memorizing content and coverage in the traditional curriculum is the main reason for Americans’ lack of knowledge. Without understanding why it was important to know this information or how we’d ever use it, most of us have nevertheless gone through school memorizing presidents, capitals, mountains, rivers, battles, generals, and everything else that’s useful for playing Trivial Pursuit.
James Paul Gee, professor of reading at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, calls this “content fetish.” He argues that schools teach academic subjects as though they’re simply bodies of facts and information that kids can learn from reading texts and listening to teachers. Students are expected to memorize the factoids for later testing. But practitioners in academic disciplines—biologists, historians, lawyers—learn through acting and interacting with the information.
Gee has written that when knowledge is treated as more than simply information, the facts come to life: “A large body of facts that resist out-of-context memorization and rote learning becomes easier to assimilate if learners are immersed in activities and experiences that use these facts for plans, goals, and purposes within a coherent knowledge domain.”
The challenges we face as individuals and as societies are ever more complex. Meeting them effectively will require extensive knowledge, but it will also require the ability to gather the knowledge, evaluate it, and apply it wisely. Schools need to give first priority to helping students learn to think and use knowledge to solve problems—not simply to pass tests.
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as Whaddaya Know?