HNN Hot Topics: Low History IQ's ... The Ignorance of History

Hot Topics

This page lists articles about the teaching of history, focusing in particular on studies which demonstrate the historical ignorance of Americans. 

  • U.S. Students Remain Poor at History, Tests Show 
  • Canadian classrooms get failing grade for history 
  • Bailing out the ignorance of America's voters
  • Sam Wineburg and Chauncey Monte-Sano: The Changing Pantheon of American Heroes 3/1/08
  • Magna Carta what? English charter 'a mystery to 45pc of population' 3/13/08
  • History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens 2/26/08
  • For class of S.F. high school juniors, WWII details are elusive
  • New ISI study: College students struggle on history test
  • Thomas who? New dollar coin might help
  • William J. Bennett: How do we ask our children to fight, and perhaps die, for a country they do not know?
  • Canadians' self-knowledge dismal, poll shows
  • Martin A. Davis, Jr.: What the new history report card tells us 5/17/07
  • Report: Students know basic history and civics 5/16/07
  • History Profs Slam Report on Low History IQs
  • About Those Tests Indicating Students Have Low History IQ's
  • A new study by ISI sounds the alarm over undergraduates' ignorance of American history. Is it a crisis or a case of crying wolf?: The problem, according to many in academe, is that the think tank has not released any more than that first handful of sample items from the test, making it hard to judge what the test's results really mean. The institute says it is still using the questions in a continuing round of testing, and so does not want to release them yet. One finding from the study that did not make it into news reports was that only two students out of 14,000 got perfect scores on the test."When only two out of 14,000 people get the exam 100 percent correct, it sounds like the test is designed to show what people don't know," says Rebecca F. Goldin, an associate professor of mathematics at George Mason University ....


  • Seniors know less than freshmen, new survey indicates: America's colleges and universities fail to increase knowledge about America's history and institutions, [according to a new study by the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute].


  • In state academic standards, world history gets lost in translation: A new report released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds that at a time of rapid globalization, most states don’t even try to provide young Americans with a solid grounding in world history.


  • Trafalgar: Many Scots are"woefully" ignorant of the Battle of Trafalgar, a survey to mark its 200th anniversary suggests. Four out of five Scots (83%) cannot name the location of Admiral Lord Nelson's famous naval victory.


  • Constitution: Quick, who was the American general at the Battle of Yorktown? A) William Sherman B) Ulysses Grant C) Douglas MacArthur D) George Washington. If you answered D), you did better than two out of three graduates of America's top universities. Many of them picked Grant - and 6 percent picked MacArthur. Historians are citing those results along with a cascade of other data to argue that many Americans are, for all practical purposes, historically illiterate. Senator Robert C. Byrd, the Democrat from West Virginia who keeps a copy of the Constitution in his pocket, finds the nation's historical amnesia frustrating. In December he inserted into a giant spending bill a passage requiring every American school receiving federal money to teach about the Constitution on Sept. 17, the date it was signed in 1787. Saturday is the first annual Constitution Day, and Mr. Byrd's law is focusing considerable attention on the document.


  • Low History IQ: Secondary school students in Hong Kong lack a proper understanding of modern Chinese history, according to a survey. A total of 473 Form Four to Seven students in 65 secondary schools were quizzed on their knowledge of Chinese history, from the early 19th century to the present day. They were also tested on the Basic Law and social development theory. Overall, the students scored well - in excess of 70 per cent answering more than half of the 60 multiple-choice questions correctly, as well as more than 80 per cent of all responses in some of the paper's six sections. But when it came to the section on the period following the foundation of the People's Republic in 1949, only 37 per cent of answers were correct. Economic history gave students the most trouble. Traditionally, schools taught China's 5,000-year history in chronological order, but many historians now felt that recent history was the most important."To rectify this, we should require students to learn this history and make it a compulsory part of the syllabus," Hui Chun-lung, president of Hong Kong Teachers' Association of Chinese History Education, said.


  • Low History IQ: A poll testing Canadians' knowledge of their country's economic history turned up some dismal results. Only one person of the 1,000 tested got all 20 answers correct. The average score was eight right. The survey, in honor of Canada Day on Friday, was sponsored by Dominion Institute and TD Bank Financial Group and was conducted June 13-17 by the Innovative Research Group. It was the worst Canadians have ever scored on the survey. (Questions and answers provided.)


  • Ugh! New History Poll: If George Washington returned from the dead and attempted to recapture the presidency of the United States, he would beat an incumbent President George W. Bush by nearly 20 percentage points, according to a new national poll conducted for Washington College. Asked to choose between George Washington and George W. Bush, Republicans in the survey supported Bush by a margin of more than 2 to 1, while Democrats and independents overwhelmingly favored Washington. Only 46 percent of the 800 adult Americans surveyed could identify him as the general who led the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War. When asked who they thought was America’s greatest president, only 6 percent named George Washington, ranking him seventh among all presidents. Younger Americans are far less likely to know basic facts and legends about Washington and his era. Of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29, only 57 percent knew the tale of Washington and the cherry tree (compared to 91 percent of respondents over 50).Just 45 percent of younger respondents identified Martha Washington as our nation's first First Lady.


  • Holocaust Denial: Nearly one in eight Italians believes the Holocaust is a Jewish invention, according a poll published yesterday. Twelve percent of respondentsagreed when asked whether"Jews are lying when they maintain that Nazism exterminated millions of their kind is gas chambers". The finding emerged from a survey that revealed continuing anti-semitic prejudice in Italy, where many people deny fascism had any responsibility for the deaths of Jews.


  • History Education: Tory Shadow education secretary Tim Collins wants history to be made compulsory for children up to the age of 16 - they can currently drop the subject at 14. Mr Collins is expected to tell the conference of Catholic head teachers that Iceland is the only other developed country to allow children to drop history at 14."When surveys show nearly a third of all 11 to 18-year-olds think that Oliver Cromwell fought at the Battle of Hastings and when fewer than half know that Nelson's ship at Trafalgar was called HMS Victory we have to take action.""Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms," he is due to say.


  • Holocaust: A new survey suggests a glaring gap in Canadians' knowledge of the Holocaust, namely how many Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Second World War. The survey said although 40 per cent of Canadians accurately put the death toll at six million Jews or more, almost one in six, or 16 per cent, put the number at fewer than a million. Historian Michael Marrus, a Holocaust specialist at the University of Toronto, says the poll results appear to reflect a growing disconnect with the Second World War."What is going on is a desensitization to what is for many of us the formative political experience of our lives, namely the Second World War," Marrus, 63, said. Marrus also said the findings about what Canadians know about the Jewish death toll should be put in context."My first question would be, 'Well, what else don't they know?'" he said."And is this a singular deadening to the Holocaust, or is it a deadening to recent history and the great events that helped shape the lives of so many Canadians, too."


  • WW II History Forgotten Nearly half of Britons in a poll said they had never heard of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in southern Poland that became a symbol of the Holocaust and the attempted genocide of the Jews. The results of the survey conducted by the BBC were released on Thursday as Britain's public broadcaster announced it will show a new series next January to mark the 60th anniversary of the concentration camp's liberation.


  • British History Misremembered Many British youngsters think J J R Tolkien's wizard Gandalf, fictional sailor Horatio Hornblower or explorer Christopher Columbus led English forces that defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, according to a survey published yesterday. Less than half identified Sir Francis Drake as a key figure in one of the most famous sea battles in British history, the poll for the BBC showed. A third of 16 to 34-year-olds did not know that William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, while more than a fifth of 16- to 24-year-olds thought Britain had been conquered by the Germans, the Americans or the Spanish at some point, the poll found. The figures, released to mark the start of the BBC's Battlefield Britain series on landmark conflicts in British history, horrified educators."It clearly shows that our state education system has got a lot to answer for," said Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, which argues for traditional teaching methods.


  • World War II Misremembered IT IS 1899 and Denzel Washington, the American president, orders Anne Frank and her troops to storm the beaches of Nazi-occupied New Zealand. This may not be how you remember D-Day but for a worrying number of Britain's children this is the confused scenario they associate with the events of June 6, 1944.


  • World War II Misremembered Jay Matthews: Tiffany Charles got a B in history last year at her Montgomery County high school, but she is not sure what year World War II ended. She cannot name a single general or battle, or the man who was president during the most dramatic hours of the 20th century.


  • Historical Ignorance Is Widespread in America Thomas Reeves: For those who seek to consult the public on matters of grave importance to the nation, I suggest that they try to learn what it means to be an average American. Watch some prime time television. Spend a week in a local high school. Glean the topics of conversation in bars and barber shops. Visit a class in Mass Communications at the average college. See how many people can correctly date World War II, give the population of the city they live in, or tell you where their grandmother was born.


  • Ignorance of History in GB The British are a nation of history dunces with many believing Adolf Hitler never existed, a new survey has revealed.


  • Jacquelyn Hall: Don't Know History: Here's Why


  • Who Was Herbert Hoover? CBS News,"Poll: Americans Don't Remember Who Herbert Hoover Was"


  • Ignorance of History Overstated Sam Wineburg:"There's No Evidence Students Today Are More Ignorant About History"


  • What Surveys Show Jacquelyn Dowd Hall,"Do the Surveys Which Show Americans Are Ignorant About History Revealing?"


  • Social Studies Undermines Hist5ory Kathleen Porter,"What's Wrong with Social Studies" (HNN)


  • State History Standards Thomas B. Fordham Foundation,"Effective State Standards for U.S. History: A 2003 Report Card"


  • "HNN Poll: The Consequences of Indifference to History"


  • Thomas B. Fordham Foundation,"Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?"


  • "Education for Democracy"


  • Albert Shanker Institute,"Democracy: Teach It" (Statement endorsed by over 100 prominent Americans, cites shortcomings in education for democracy; calls for strengthened content, in history and civics).


  • Diane Ravitch,"Should We Be Alarmed by the Results of the Latest U.S. History Test? (Yes)"


  • Ron Briley,"Should We Be Alarmed by the Results of the Latest U.S. History Test? (No)"


  • "The Test 12th Graders Flunked."


  • Diane Ravitch,"Coaches Shouldn't Teach History"


  • Allan M. Winkler,"What Do Our Students Know?"


  • Anders Henriksson,"Do Students Care About History?"


  • Jane Hall,"Don’t Know Much About History"

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More Comments:

David A Young - 9/20/2005

While the average population's knowledge of history is generally deplorable, I noticed that virtually all of the questions on these quizes focus on military history and random battle factoids. While important to know, there is much more to history that knowing when the Spanish armada sailed. I would think that if quizzes were given that asked questions on a wide variety of questions, not only of particular national histories but of the the whole world, the results would be amazing. I doubt many people know when the decolonization of most of the world took place, why it happened and how it impacts the world today. But that is important knowledge, a key to a basic understanding of world events...i.e. Rwanda, Iraq, etc. Remember that "history" encompasses the totality of human experience, not just the personality quirks of Patton or the narrow documentaries on the history channel.

While I'm ranting.....

We need to get away from emphasizing forgettable factoids and emphasize history's importance for today. And the best way to do that is to not only teach recent history over ancient, but teach about the ongoing debates within the historical community. Nothing is scarier than hearing average people, usually adults, assert that their view is the only credible and established view of history (i.e. Vietnam) and all others are part of the leftwing agenda. Lets teach the controversies so central to our profession, students will have a much richer understanding because of it.

James Spence - 2/6/2005

You cannot question today's history makers without knowing history's events. Regulating the facts of history to a musty museum would only encourage pseudo-historians to rewrite history to suit their agendas.

Chris Murphy - 6/4/2004

How amazing it is to read that some of us continue to judge youth by how many useless facts they can recall. I would have thought the days of rote learning dates and the names of "famous" generals had well and truly past. Surely, today, it is far more important for youth to question why and how, rather than simply regurgitate what, who and when.

I wonder just how many D-Day veterans would have known, in 1944, the dates of the American Civil War, or the name of the U.S. President at the turn of the 20th century. Besides, what would it have mattered anyway? Far better that they understood why they were doing and why.

History as events and dates and names belongs to the musty "museums" of small towns. If ignorance is to be measured, let it be in terms of people's inability to question today's history makers, all-too-often "famous men" who obviously have no understanding off what mortal dangers await their citizen soldiers in far off lands.