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Don’t Know Much About Washington (or history and economics for that matter)

Mark McNeilly is the author of George Washington and the Art of Business: Leadership Principles of America’s First Commander-in-Chief as well as Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Strategic Principles for Managers. In the article below he criticizes the civic knowledge of American citizens.

Even Bill Clinton’s biggest admirers would be hard pressed to make a good case that he was as good a president as George Washington. Yet that is basically the conclusion of a 2008 Harris poll of 2300 adults in the U.S. Washington essentially tied Bill Clinton on the question “Who Was the Best President in History?” Amazingly, Washington only garnered 12% of the vote and ended up fifth on the list. Presidents like Andrew Jackson and Alexander Polk, whom historians in a Wall Street Journal poll rank in the top ten, don’t even garner 1% of the people’s vote in the Harris poll.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising. As I’ve noted elsewhere, in a test performed by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, only 68% of college freshman knew Washington’s actual role as general and statesman in the founding of our country. The rest, almost a third of the students, thought he was a constitutional writer, a social compact theorist, advocate for states rights or a leader from Massachusetts (the last option isn’t even close; Washington was from Virginia).

Not knowing about Washington is only one area of lack of knowledge. Today there are many battles over the presence of religion in politics and government. Yet only 28% of college freshman in the ISI study correctly answered that the origin of the doctrine of separation of church and state is not in the Constitution but can be found in letters by Thomas Jefferson. The only thing the Constitution says about religion is that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

A microscopic 16% knew the something of the “just-war” theory. Thirty-nine percent didn’t know why the United Nations was formed. Half didn’t know how Kennedy responded to the Soviet installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Seventy percent didn’t know who Saddam Hussein’s supporters were in Iraq.

Beyond history the results were not encouraging either. Almost seventy percent of college freshman didn’t understand why free markets work better than centralized planning, roughly forty percent couldn’t respond correctly in defining free enterprise and seventy-five percent didn’t know that real income increased for the lower and middle classes over the last forty years in the US.

College education doesn’t help. Overall, the ISI study found that college seniors across the country also get an “F” on American civics, averaging 54% on its sixty question test. Based on their responses on “best presidents” it appears adults would fare no betterr.

Why does any of this matter? We are in the midst of a presidential election which will determine the trajectory of our nation for at least four, if not eight, years. Weighty matters are on the table, such as Iraq, economic policy, constitutional rights, homeland security, and foreign policy. If people don’t understand the fundamentals of economics, if they don’t know American history, if they don’t know our constitution, then how can they be expected to vote wisely?

How to rectify this? What we’ve been doing obviously hasn’t been working, either at the elementary, high school or college levels. All the reforms and money thrown at the system appear not to have made much of a difference. So, while I believe we must commit as a nation to fix this, I cannot say I have a lot of faith in our schools’ ability to do so. Perhaps instead, in the tradition of American independence and self-sufficiency, each of us should each pick up a few books this summer and educate ourselves.

Wonder how you would fare on the ISI civics test? Try it here.

Recent Comments

  1. mollymooly

    It’s worth pointing out for those who don’t click through that the test in question is a multiple choice quiz.

    (PS: Alexander Polk was not a great president.)

  2. Janet

    George Washington’s political thought regarding religious freedom has received almost no scholarly attention. This is unfortunate, for Washington’s words and actions speak to contemporary Establishment Clause and Free Exercise issues. This article sets forth Washington’s understanding of the right to religious liberty.

  3. jSarek

    Alexander Polk most definitely was not a great president, since we never HAD a president by that name.

    James K. Polk, now, is a little more debatable. At least he kept all of his campaign promises . . . but he had to throw a war to do it.

    And I consider it disingenuous to claim that “the doctrine of separation of church and state is not in the Constitution but can be found in letters by Thomas Jefferson,” when the very part of the Constitution you quote establishes that doctrine as legal reality. It never uses the exact words, but that’s irrelevant.

  4. Zachariah B. Wiedeman

    I agree with jSarek on one point: The author of this article is a victim of its own subject in that he points to a fictitious President Alexander Polk.

    On the other hand, jSarek is completely off base for saying that this article is disingenuous. It is jSarek who is disingenuous by misquoting the article. It states that the ORIGIN of the doctrine of separation of church and state is not in the constitution. Origin implies the roots from which the doctrine originated – not where it is most commonly referred to as existing. The most correct answer is that they did originate from Thomas Jefferson’s letters – and that is largely how they came to be included in the constitution in the first place.

    I wonder if jSarek would also take umbrage the civics quiz stating that the Declaration of Independence relies most obviously on the political thought of John Locke – when we all KNOW Thomas Jefferson is the real author of the document! *wink*

  5. 1982 Randolph NJ Grad

    TY for having the server support to take the test. While an engineer for over 20 years, my high school and college education were not a wasted effort on my teacher’s part (ty from one of your “difficult” students). BTW I scored above the average – grin at least for November..

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