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Reversing the Decline in Historical and Civic Literacy
The Society will play a vital role in meeting important challenges facing our nation. We see these challenges as follows.
“These failings threaten the future of our democracy,” writes retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “If we don’t know what makes this country special and worth saving, how will we know how to safeguard its promise of freedom and opportunity?”
America faces growing “collective amnesia,” as historian David McCullough calls it. No fewer than six national surveys have revealed dismaying examples of declining knowledge of history and civics:
- A recent Newsweek survey found 38% of Americans couldn’t pass a citizenship test, 65% didn’t know what happened at the Constitutional Convention, and 40% couldn’t say who we fought in World War II.
- According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 12% of high school seniors are “proficient” or better in American history, with the average score on a national exam being 58% (288 out of 500).
- At the top 20 Civil War battlefields, visitation dropped in half from 1970 to 2009. Gettysburg visits dropped from 6,879,400 to 1,013,002.
- 83% of adult citizens fail a rudimentary quiz on the Revolutionary War (with an average score of only 44). From a list of five battles, two-thirds of Americans could not correctly name Yorktown as the last major military action of the American Revolution.
“American history is our children’s worst subject,” laments Sen. Lamar Alexander. In 2004 he sponsored legislation to create the Congressional and Presidential Academies for American History, which were recently eliminated by the Obama Administration.
An ISI survey in 2008 indicated that 71% of Americans couldn’t pass a basic test on American history, with an average score of 49%. College graduates failed at 57%. Many of the questions were from U.S. naturalization exams and U.S. Education Department high school progress tests.
- Amazingly, our government officials know even less than other Americans about civics – their average score on the 2008 ISI literacy test was 44%, compared to 49% for citizens who had not held elected office. Some 43% percent of officials do not know what the Electoral College does and 79% don’t know the Bill of Rights prohibits establishing an official religion.
- Only 38% of Americans can name all three branches of the U.S. government, according to a recent survey by the Annenberg Foundation. One-third are unable to correctly name any of the branches.
“The principles that unite us as a nation are fading from memory,” says Dr. Bruce Cole, Vice Chairman of the American Heritage Society and longtime NEH Chairman in the George W. Bush Administration. “Knowledge of the ideas on which our nation is built is essential to maintain the relevance and vibrancy of our government.”
Only 55% of American citizens know that Congress
shares authority over U.S. foreign policy with the president, according to the Annenberg survey, and almost a quarter incorrectly believe Congress shares this power
with the United Nations. Almost a third believed a
Supreme Court ruling could be appealed.
 March 2011 survey of 1,000 U.S. adults, in an issue of Newsweek entitled “How Dumb Are We?”
 “Proficient” is the middle achievement level between “Basic” and “Advanced.” US History 2010: National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 4, 8 and 12, by the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.
 Numbers supplied by the National Park Service. Methods of counting in 2009 may have been somewhat different from 1970, but visitation is still clearly down significantly.
 Random survey in 2009 by Gallup of 1,001 U.S. general population for the American Revolution Center.
 From a telephone survey for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a 58-year-old non-partisan educational organization, of 2,508 adults done by the University of Connecticut in 2008.
 Results published in The Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools, a report from the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Data from a telephone survey of 1,230 adult Americans by Social Science Research Solutions in Media, PA.