In 1943, the New York Times ran a series of articles about the woeful state of knowledge of American history among college freshmen. The articles were informed by a survey the Times had commissioned in which 7000 students at 36 colleges and universities were asked to respond to questions about American history and geography. The results were given to Times education reporter Benjamin Fine, who found them to be appalling, and who then wrote the first in what would prove to be a series of articles, titled “Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen: Survey of 7,000 Students in 36 Institutions Discloses Vast Fund of Misinformation On Many Basic Facts.”
Learning of the survey and the subsequent controversy during a recent visit to the New York Times offices, I found myself curious as to how my own knowledge of U.S. history would measure up against the scandalous ignoramuses of 1943.
Fine’s article lists many of the questions from the survey. You may want to read these as I did, as a quiz. I’ve presented Wikipedia links so you can check your answers. The students taking the test did poorly, and I have indicated the percentage that got a correct answer for a number of the questions, where the Times provided that detail.
- Who was Thomas Jefferson?
- What was Theodore Roosevelt‘s greatest contribution to the United States?
[It is unclear to me what answer the Times wanted to this, though the article mocks “a student from a Western university” who answered that Roosevelt’s greatest contribution to the United States was that “he collected a large quantitiy of animal heads.” Personally, I think they should have given that kid a PhD.]
- Identify two major contributions by Andrew Jackson [This seems like a matter over which reasonable people might disagree, but the Times had a short list of acceptable achievements]
- Who was President of the United States during the Civil War? [75% got it right, and 25 of the 7000 respondents answered “George Washington”]
- Who was President of the United States during “the last World War”? [70% got it right]
- Name the 13 original colonies [6% got that],
- Name the body of water on which Cleveland sits (as with many of these questions, the answer is ambiguous; I am not sure whether they wanted this or this)
- Name the body of water on which St. Louis sits
- Name the body of water on which Portland sits (did they want this, or this?)
- Name the body of water on which Memphis sits (They probably wanted this, but I think this ought to have been given credit too).
- Name all the states on the Eastern seaboard of the United States [only 3% got that one right].
- List all the U.S. presidents that have been assassinated.
- List two specific powers granted Congress by the Constitution
- List four freedoms in the Bill of Rights
- Name the home states of
- Describe the Nullification Act of South Carolina and how the resulting controversy was settled.[6%]
- Which were the principal nationalities migrating to the United States from Europe between 1845 and 1860? (this and this)
- When did the Homestead Act pass. [4%] What was the minimum price for an acre of Federal public land before that date? [2%]
- Name three prominent figures identified with railroad history in the United States.
- What was the first census in which railway milage could have been reported? [2%]
- Name two prominent figures connected with the growth of trusts and monopolies in the United States.
- Name a prominent figure not now living connected with the organization of labor in the United States,
- and a comparable figure associated with women’s rights. [at last, a woman!]
- Name two areas of the United States added by purchase.
- Indicate the traditional American policy towards China. [The Times found it sad that “for the most part, the students thought that our policy had been to prevent immigration, to send them missionaries, and to exploit her.” If you ask me, the students were at least 2/3 right.]
Students were given only 30 minutes to complete the test, and there were only a handful of questions that more than 50 percent of students answered correctly.
The colleges participating included Boston University, Brooklyn College, Bucknell, City College, University of Cincinnati, Colgate, College of Good Counsel, Dartmouth, George Washington University, Hunter, Illinois Institute of Technology, Indiana University, Kansas University, Kentucky University, Maequette, Maryland University, Massachusetts State College, Mount Holyoke, New York University, North Carolina University, Pennsylvania State College, Pennsylvania Univeristy, Pittsburgh University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rhode Island State College, Smith College, Texas University, Tulane, Virginia University, Washington University, State College of Washington, Central Washington College of Education, Eastern Washington College of Education, Western Reserve, William and Mary, and Yeshiva College.
To follow soon: the aftermath of the article’s publication, and the survey’s terrible secret revealed.