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Summer 2006 | Volume 29, Number 3 | Features

Evidence of National Amnesia

Test your knowledge of American history with the same questions asked of elite college seniors

YOU MAY REMEMBER THE headlines: “Elite college seniors flunk basic American history.” “Beavis and Butthead are more familiar than George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.” In 2000, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA ) issued a groundbreaking report that revealed an alarming ignorance of American history among seniors from the country’s most elite (as defined by U.S. News and World Report) colleges and universities.

Four out of five — 81 percent — of the seniors surveyed received a grade D or F on 34 questions drawn from a basic high school history curriculum. The results were discouraging to anyone who believes, as David McCullough does, that our nation is suffering from “a kind of creeping amnesia.”

Not only did the “Elite College History Survey” generate national headlines, but it also resulted in a Congressional resolution calling upon college and university trustees, state administrators, history educators, and parents to address the issue of America’s historical illiteracy. The resolution was endorsed by such prominent historians as McCullough, Gordon Wood, and Oscar Handlin. ACTA ’s reports continue to inform national dialogue and policy, and were referenced by President Bush in his 2002 national history and civics initiative.

So what were students asked in the survey, and how would you have responded to the same questions? With permission from the ACTA , Response reprints 16 of the 34 survey questions. Answers are provided at the bottom of the page, along with the percentage of college seniors who answered each question correctly.

Sample Questions From the “Elite College History Survey”

1. What was the source of the following phrase: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”?
a. The speech: “I have a Dream”
b. Declaration of Independence
c. U.S. Constitution
d. Gettsyburg Address

2. Who was the leading advocate for the U.S. entry into the League of Nations?
a. George C. Marshall
b. Woodrow Wilson
c. Henry Cabot Lodge
d. Eleanor Roosevelt

3. What was the lowest point in American fortunes in the Revolutionary War?
a. Saratoga
b. Bunker Hill
c. Valley Forge
d. Fort Ticonderoga

4. Who was the “Father of the Constitution”?
a. George Washington
b. Thomas Jefferson
c. Benjamin Franklin
d. James Madison

5. Who was the president of the United States at the beginning of the Korean War?
a. John F. Kennedy
b. Franklin D. Roosevelt
c. Dwight Eisenhower
d. Harry Truman

6. The Emancipation Proclamation issued by Lincoln stated that:
a. Slaves were free in areas of the Confederate states not held by the Union
b. The slave trade was illegal
c. Slaves who fled to Canada would be protected
d. Slavery was abolished in the Union

7. The Battle of the Bulge occurred during
a. The Vietnam War
b. World War II
c. World War I
d. The Civil War

8. Are Beavis and Butthead
a. A radio show
b. Television cartoon characters
c. A musical group
d. Fictional soldiers

9. The Monroe Doctrine declared that:
a. The American blockade of Cuba was in accord with international law
b. Europe should not acquire new territories in the Western Hemisphere
c. Trade with China should be open to all Western nations
d. The annexation of the Philippines was legitimate

10. Which of the following was a prominent leader of the Abolitionist Movement?
a. Malcolm X
b. Martin Luther King Jr.
c. W.E.B. Du Bois
d. Frederick Douglass

11. Social legislation passed under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society Program included:
a. The Sherman Antitrust Act
b. The Voting Rights Act
c. The Tennessee Valley Authority
d. The Civilian Conservation Corps

12. Who was the European who traveled in the United States and wrote down perceptive comments about what he saw in Democracy in America?
a. Lafayette
b. Tocqueville
c. Crevecoeur
d. Napoleon

13. Who said, “I regret that I have only one life to give for my country”?
a. John F. Kennedy
b. Benedict Arnold
c. John Brown
d. Nathan Hale

14. When was Thomas Jefferson president?
a. 1780–1800
b. 1800–1820
c. 1820–1840
d. 1840–1860
e. 1860–1880

15. The Scopes Trial was about:
a. Freedom of the press
b. Teaching evolution in the schools
c. Prayer in the schools
d. Education in private schools

16. Who was “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen”?
a. George Washington
b. Woodrow Wilson
c. Dwight Eisenhower
d. Abraham Lincoln

Click here for the answers.

Editor's Note: To read the complete survey and ACTA report, click here. Scroll down the page to "Losing America's Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century."


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