Don’t Know Nothin

DON’T KNOW NOTHIN….Anne Applebaum is unhappy that although the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History has many interesting exhibits, it doesn’t try to teach very much actual American history:

That is, it doesn’t tell the whole American story, or even chunks of the American story, in chronological order, from Washington to Adams to Jefferson, or from Roosevelt to Truman to Eisenhower. When the museum was built in 1964, this sort of thing probably wasn’t necessary. But judging from a group of teenagers whom I recently heard lapse into silence when asked if they could identify Lewis and Clark, I suspect it’s now very necessary indeed.

Opinion polls bear out my suspicions. According to one poll, more U.S. teenagers can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. Even fewer can state the first three words of the Constitution.

Applebaum is surely right that Americans don’t know their own history very well, but in making her point she hits on one of my pet peeves: a vague and wholly unwarranted assumption that it’s only kids who share this ignorance. As near as I can tell, the primary evidence for this is the fact that pollsters are forever being commissioned to survey teenagers on this subject, usually with the express goal of “discovering” that they don’t know much about American history. But they never survey anyone else.

So here’s a bet I’m willing to make with Applebaum: Hire Frank Luntz to do his “Three Stooges Survey” again, except this time with people of all ages. I’m willing to bet that, overall, the kids do about as well as any other age group.

In the meantime, for anyone who wants to check this on their own, here’s a quick test: head down to a street corner and ask random passers by (a) if they can name the Three Stooges, (b) if they can name the first three words of the constitution, and (c) how old they are. Then report back.

POSTSCRIPT: And when we’re done, let’s do a math test too. I’ll bet most adults can’t do long division any better than the average teenager.

Washington Monthly - Donate Today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation