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Social Studies

When Was the Constitution Written? Most Americans Don’t Know

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 03, 2018 2 min read
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It’s starting to be something of a monthly ritual here at Curriculum Matters: reporting that the state of Americans’ civic knowledge is pretty ghastly.

A new national poll finds that most Americans don’t know that the Constitution was written in 1787 (nearly two-thirds of Americans named 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed), just 20 percent knew how many amendments to the U.S. Constitution exist, fewer than half knew that there are nine justices sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court.

On a few matters, more Americans did know their stuff, though there was room for improvment: 63 percent knew that communism was the main concern of the United States during the Cold War (although 2 percent named climate change—eek!) and 64 percent knew that the country made the Louisiana Purchase from France.

In general, though, Americans’ weak knowledge reflects a number of other polls and reports over the last few years.

The wrinkle to this poll, conducted for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which works to improve teacher training, is that some of its questions are similar to those asked as part of the exam that those applying for naturalization have to pass.

And why does that matter? Well, because more than a dozen states now require all of their high school students to take, and pass, that exam to graduate.

It’s a reform that’s been lauded in some corners and criticized by others as far too narrow and multiple-choice-based. The results show that, easy or not, adults lack even basic knowledge about their country’s origins. Overall, 64 percent of adults polled would have gotten an F grade (59 percent of questions answered correctly) on the test.

With these results, the phrase “hoisted with his own petard” comes to mind a teeny bit, though to be fair, this isn’t a poll of students in the states that have adopted the U.S. citizenship exam, and there’s no way to tell what effects, if any, it’s had.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that high school history and civics matter: 60 percent of respondents last reported taking history in high school. And age mattered, too: Older respondents over the age of 65 did better on the test than did those below that age.

Tantalizingly, the fellowship foundation said it’s cooking up a new program, to be announced in 2019, in response to these issues.

The poll of 1,000 adults has a sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

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