On the 4th of July, Are You Smarter than a 4th Grader?

This weekend is Independence Day, when Americans are called upon to reflect upon the blessings of liberty made possible by the heroism, leadership, and principles of our Founding Fathers.

Unfortunately, today the 4th of July has become more of a holiday from history, rather than about history, as the closest most Americans will come this weekend to considering the actual historical exploits of the Founders is when they view a TV ad featuring George Washington selling a used car.

Republics, Benjamin Franklin among others argued, are fragile institutions (“A republic, if you can keep it, madam.”), requiring as they do an informed citizenry capable of applying the vital lessons of the past to the felt necessities of today.

Regretfully, there is ample evidence that contemporary Americans are woefully ignorant of even the basic events and institutions that shaped our experiment in self-governance.
Most Americans are aware of the popular game show “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader,” which demonstrates in comic frankness the stark inadequacies of our educational system. There is obviously humor involved when a small child is found to be smarter than an adult, but when you consider that this same adult is also expected to perform the fundamental duties of citizenship, this comedic episode starts to look more like a tragedy.

In anticipation of the 4th of July, and like the popular game show, I thought it would be informative to see if the adults reading this piece can answer some elementary American history and civics questions posed to a random sample of 4th graders by the U.S. Department of Education (the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP Test).

As you will see, a number of these questions were very similar to those posed to thousands of college graduates by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), in their national civic literacy exam, and remarkably there doesn’t seem to be that much of a difference between American 4th graders and our best and brightest collegians.

Let’s begin with this question:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The passage comes from the:

A. Constitution
B. Mayflower Compact
C. Declaration of Independence
D. Articles of Confederation

In the 2001 NAEP U.S. History exam for 4th graders, 46% of those surveyed answered the above question correctly. Do you know the correct answer? Are you smarter than a 4th grader?

Now, compare this question with this similar one ISI posed to 7,000 college freshmen and 7,000 seniors in 2007:

The line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” is from:

A. The Federalist.
B. The Preamble to the Constitution.
C. The Communist Manifesto.
D. The Declaration of Independence.
E. An inscription on the Statue of Liberty.

Amazingly (and sadly), the same percentage of college seniors—46%—got this similar question correct. Apparently, college students are not smarter than a 4th grader! It would seem that not a whole lot of civics education goes on between the ages of 10 and 20 in America.

Let’s try another 4th grade question, this one from the 2006 NAEP Test:

The first permanent English settlement in North America was:

A. St. Augustine
B. Santa Fe
C. Jamestown
D. New Amsterdam

A disappointing 34% of sampled American 4th graders got this question correct. But what about American college students? Here’s the question ISI asked them:

Jamestown, Virginia, was first settled by Europeans during which period?

A. 1301– 1400
B. 1401 – 1500
C. 1501 – 1600
D. 1601 – 1700
E. 1701 – 1800

Yes, this is a slightly different question, and yes, that was a big hint for those playing at home, but even so, only 44% of ISI’s 7,000 surveyed seniors got the correct century for Jamestown.

Finally, let’s try a civics question from the 1998 4th grade NAEP Test:

What are the three parts of the federal (national) government of the United States?

A. Republican, Democrat, and Independent
B. Legislative, executive, and judicial
C. Local, state, and federal
D. State, national, international

This turned out to be a hard one for our 4th graders—only 25% knew the three branches of government. Interestingly, this question also happens to appear on the new U.S. Citizenship Exam, as well as ISI’s 2008 random sample of 2,500 Americans, college educated and not. ISI’s survey revealed that only 49% of all Americans could identify all three branches, while 64% of college graduates got the question correct.

At least this was a question where American adults were smarter than a 4th grader, but there is little solace when one considers that half of all Americans were stumped by this elementary aspect of our constitutional system.

Clearly, then, something needs to be done to address this slow and steady erosion of the civic foundations of our country, and a good place to start is at the college level, where our future teachers and leaders are formed. It was David Hume (a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher who profoundly influenced Thomas Jefferson, by the way) who warned that “it is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.” If we are not careful, and if we don’t make a re-invigorated civics curricula at all levels of instruction an urgent national priority, then I fear that the incremental loss of liberty that Hume speaks of will become an unfortunate reality for future generations of Americans.