Still at Risk: What Students Don't Know, Even Now

Frederick M. Hess
Common Core
February 2008

A conversation that Susan Jacoby (see above) overheard at a bar on September 11, 2001, spurred her to write The Age of American Unreason: "‘This is just like Pearl Harbor," one of the men said. The other asked, ‘What is Pearl Harbor?' ‘That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,' the first man replied." Still at Risk, the maiden publication from Common Core (the executive director of which, Lynne Munson, recently spoke with Jacoby on NPR), seeks to shock and awe us with similar tales of Americans' ignorance of their own history and culture. CC tested 1,200 seventeen-year-olds' knowledge of such crucial topics as the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, Hitler and World War II, the Bible, and Orwell's 1984. Here's what it found: 43 percent knew the Civil War took place between 1850 and 1900; 67 percent knew the Bill of Rights guaranteed the freedoms of speech and religion; 77 percent knew Hitler was Chancellor of Germany during World War II; 50 percent knew that Job is best known for his patience and suffering; and 52 percent knew the central plot of Orwell's famous dystopian novel. That's a sampling of the most egregious examples, but there are plenty more. Of course, these kinds of surveys have sprung up before, so it's worth asking here why we care about the findings. Jacoby uses data of this sort to fuel an overwrought campaign against Americans who don't wear the membership badge of the intellectual clique on their sleeves. CC takes a more nuanced view, highlighting the contribution that a broad, liberal education makes not just to American democracy, but also to people's enjoyment of their lives as individuals. Look for more valuable contributions from this young organization in the future. And read Still at Risk here.

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