Social Studies

The American Revolution: Flunking the Test

By Sean Cavanagh — December 03, 2009 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Almost all of us agree that it’s important to teach students the history of the American Revolution, and the basic principles that guided it. Yet the vast majority of Americans flunked a test on the basic facts surrounding that time period, and the liberties it spawned, a new survey finds.

The results were unveiled in a poll conducted by the American Revolution Center, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote public understanding of those historical events and their legacy.

The organization conducted a nationwide poll of adults 18 and older, which had a four percent margin of error. The survey included a 27-question test, cobbled together with input from scholars and historians. Some questions were taken directly from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The results will no doubt appall professional and amateur historians alike. On average, Americans got just 44 percent of questions correct. Roughly 83 percent received a failing grade. Half did not get the historical chronology correct, believing, for instance, that the Civil War, or the War of 1812, preceded the American revolution.

As often occurs in surveys of this sort, the poll produced results that are both amusing and sad. More Americans knew that Michael Jackson sang “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” than knew that James Madison was the Father of the Constitution, or that Alexander Hamilton was the first Treasury Secretary. And more than half of those polled, when given the quote, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” identified either
George Washington, Thomas Paine, or Barack Obama as the author.

Think again, comrade. Karl Marx said that.

I suppose some will look at the results and wonder if they’re really as dire as they seem. What if the authors had asked different questions, or worded them differently? But I also suspect that many readers react to these quizzes the way I do: with shame. I knew some of the answers on the test, but I was lost on others. Maybe the upside to these sort of surveys is that they goad the historically complacent among us to educate ourselves—through the innumerable books out there, or through documentaries, and the like.

Might make a good gift. After all, Christmas, an event that presumably needs no explanation, is just weeks away.

Image of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, above, and of Karl Marx, below, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.