Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


"Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen," says the New York Times

On April 4, 1943, the New York Times published an article under the alarming headline of "Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen." The article reported on a test of national history undertaken by 7,000 college students. The test showed that only 6 percent of them could name the 13 original colonies. Additionally, only 13 percent identified James Madison as president during the War of 1812, and only 15 percent knew that William McKinley was president during the Spanish-American War. Moreover, only a quarter could name two contributions made by either Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. This led historian Allan Nevins to contend that "such a historically illiterate bunch might be a liability on the battlefields of Europe in World War II" (cited in Mathews 2004). This was neither the first nor the last time that college students in the USA were tested on national history. This certainly happened many times during the 20th century, and in all cases the results were unsatisfactory.

One of the most well known preceding cases was the test conducted in Texas by J. Carleton Bell and David F. McCollum with 1500 students. The study was published in the May 1917 issue of Educational Psychology. The authors reported that university students were able to answer correctly less than half of the history questions posed (49%), and elementary school students only managed to answer 16% of the questions correctly. Interestingly enough, the Texan students could not explain the significance of the year 1846, the beginning of the Mexican-American War, and had Sam Houston marching triumphantly into Mexico City rather than attacking Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at San Jacinto 10 years before. Even more interestingly, most of these students did not know what happened in 1776 and confused Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis (Mathews 2004). Among the most famous studies conducted in the second part of the century was the 1976 bicentennial survey, which was supervised by Harvard University historian Bernard Bailyn and tested almost 2,000 students at 194 colleges. On average, the respondents managed to answer correctly half of the multiple-choice questions (21 of 42).

These scores were similar to the ones resulting from the history tests of 1987, 1994 and 2001 undertaken by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) with high school students. Consistently, in all these tests a little less than half of the students answer correctly basic history questions. These tests found that more than half of students were ignorant of main ideas in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution of 1787 and Bill of Rights, and of their applications to issues in American history (NAEP 1990a). After reviewing the findings of the previous two decades on these tests, a NAEP report published in 1990 concluded that "the current levels of student achievement are unacceptably low for our country's needs and aspirations and for the personal goals of its citizens" (NAEP 1990b: 29).

Beyond the discussion on the relationship between test scores and the needs and aspirations of a country, the consistency in test scores during the 20th century challenges the assumption of knowledge decline. This assumption, which seems to be a myth, claims that today's students are utterly ignorant of their country's history whereas students in the past were highly knowledgeable. Moreover, in examining this assumption we should consider that educational institutions were more elitist in the first half of the 20th century, before educational expansion. This means that, on average, the students who responded to the first tests came from families with higher economic and cultural capital than those who responded in the second half of the century. Some commentators blame teachers, others the curriculum structure, others institutional constraints, and others external factors. In any case, while historical knowledge is obviously crucial for any generation in any country, it is important to ponder whether the memorization of decontextualized dates and names proves that students critically understand their past.


Bailyn, Bernard (1995). On the Teaching and Writing of History. University Press of New England.

Mathews, Jay (2004, March 9). Greatest Generation Struggled With History, Too. The Washington Post, A12. 

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (1990). America's Challenge: Accelerating Academic Achievement. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. The U.S. History Report Card. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1990a. ED 315 377.

Patrick, John J. (1991). Achievement of Knowledge by High School Students in Core Subjects of the Social Studies. ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education. Bloomington IN. 

Prepared by DS

Citation: Author (2004). Title. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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