U.S. Teens Need Better History Education

Erik has been sick this week, so we are reprinting a column from 2001, which only seems like a few years ago.

Parents, educators, and humor writers across the country were shocked and amazed several years ago when we discovered that American high school students were seriously deficient in simple geography. That's when the now-famous statistic "one in four high school students can't identify Canada on a map" was bandied about like a ping-pong ball in a wind tunnel.

Now we're pretending to be shocked — but we're not really that surprised — by news out of Norfolk, Virginia that American teenagers are equally as bad at simple American history.

Colonial Williamsburg, a living history community dedicated to educating people about life in America in the 1700s, polled 1,020 US teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 on basic fourth-grade level history questions.

What they found may shock you. But then again, if you have a teenager between the ages of 12 and 17, it probably won't

Answer this simple question: Who was the first president of the United States?

If you said George Washington, you were right, as were 90% of the teenagers surveyed. Sure, 90% is pretty good, but that also means that one out of 10 teenagers didn't know that George W. (no, the other George W.) was the father of our country.

How about this one? What country did America win its independence from?

Twenty-two percent didn't know it was England, fourteen percent of them thought it was France, and one percent thought it was Canada.

"When you look at these numbers, it means that more than five million U.S. teenagers don't understand the true meaning of Independence Day," Colin Campbell, president and chairman of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation said in an online press release. "In fact, one in eight teens thought Independence Day involves a large rabbit who hides colored eggs."

Okay, he really didn't say that. But you believed me for a second.

If you didn't know we won our independence from England either, don't feel too bad. To decorate for Independence Day, a church in my community has hung a picture of Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president. He was elected 84 years after we declared our independence.

Here's an easy one for you. Who fought in the Civil War? The North and South, the East and West, the US and Canada, or the US and Great Britain?

Believe it or not, 13 percent of the respondents thought it was the US and Great Britain, five percent thought it was the East and West, and two percent thought it was the US and Canada. (Hey, we had to win our independence from them somehow.)

So were you one of the nearly one in seven who guessed the US and Great Britain? Don't feel too bad. When I took the quiz on the Colonial Williamsburg website, I discovered they had inadvertently highlighted that answer as the correct one.

When I called and pointed the error out to Tim Andrews, the Director of Public Relations at Colonial Williamsburg, he said he appreciated the irony, but that the mistake was quickly caught and corrected. And since he's not around to disagree with me, I'm taking full credit for pointing it out.

Andrews, who works in the back office, doesn't get to wear any of the traditional costumes the rest of the CWF staff wears. Which I suppose is for the best, since Public Relations Directors were usually burned at the stake as witches in this country until 1987. When I, secretly posing as a serious journalist, asked him if the CWF had any recommendations to President George W. Bush for teaching history, he said the CWF encourages ". . . more hands-on history educating and continue strong funding for teachers and educators."

Speaking of President Bush, he actually fared pretty well in the quiz. 96% of the teens knew that he was president. Two percent thought it was Al Gore, two thought it was Bill Clinton.

So how did you do on the quiz? If you have more than a passing awareness of American history, you scored at least 90 percent. So hold your head high this holiday weekend, place your hand on your heart, and sing our national anthem, the "Star Spangled Banner," with pride because you know that Francis Scott Key wrote it, while 31 percent of the teenagers didn't.

They think it was Britney Spears.

The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and my other book, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.


Like this post? Leave a comment or Stumble it.