The other day I was watching some “Jaywalking” segments on YouTube. In case you’re unfamiliar, these are where Jay Leno talks to “the man/woman on the street”, asks them a question or two that they probably should know the answer to (if they are reasonably well-informed), and then we laugh at how many people give wrong (sometimes very funny) answers.

In the clip below, Jay is at Universal Studios and stops people to ask them some basic questions about America’s War of Independence — like, “Who did the U.S. get its independence from?”. (It is an Independence Day segment, after all.) The only one to get them right was “Grandpa” at the end of the segment. Yay for Grandpa! The rest?… Clueless! Very sad.

I’m generally the type to give people the benefit of the doubt and, in this case, try to come up with reasons why they might not have been able to give the correct answer(s). Like, they were camera shy or starstruck. (The ones in the clip didn’t seem to be bothered, though.) Or, they were on vacation at an amusement park, so their minds were not on American history or academic concerns. (But, then, Grandpa had no problem. And the college instructor definitely should have known!) But, these were very basic facts about the American Revolution that I remember learning in grade school, for cryin’ out loud!

Now, you may think that these people were rarities, that Jay had to search far & wide for. Or, maybe that it was all a set-up to have something funny to show. Well,… you may be right. But, maybe not. It seems that Marist recently conducted a poll that, if accurate, demonstrates this lack of basic knowledge by Americans about our heritage may not be so far-fetched.

British Red Ensign

"Queen Anne's Flag" (aka British Red Ensign or 'Meteor' Flag) under which General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown

Of the 1004 U.S. residents (18+ years old) that were polled, 20% were “unsure” what country the colonies fought for their independence, and another 6% named a country other than England/Great Britain. So, overall, only 74% — roughly 3 out of 4 — got it right. When broken down, the worst scores came from the South (68% got it right), those with household income under $50K/yr (63%), non-White (56%), ages 18-29 (60%), and women (67%).

I see no reason to assume the poll was invalid. As I recall, a sampling of 1000 is generally considered “statistically significant”, with a 3% margin of error one way or the other. Plus, Marist says it took measures “to ensure that each region [throughout the nation] was represented in proportion to its population.” Of course, a similar poll of several thousand people would be preferable. But, frankly, even if such a survey pushed the ranks of the “clueless” down to 10%, that’s still way too much.

What do we make of this? I hesitate to blame it all on one group or the other. True, many kids are apathetic to learning, especially about stuff that happened before they were born (let alone 200+ years). Some teachers and administrators are more concerned with making sure kids graduate than whether or not they actually learn important things. One could also point to a public educational system that, at least in recent decades, has put too much emphasis on things like sensitivity and students’ self-esteem. Perhaps the cause is a combination of these factors and some others? I just don’t know.

It’s sad. It’s alarming! (Don’t have any kids of my own, yet, but it’s definitely a concern.) And, it’s a good argument for private- or home-schooling.

What can we do? Any ideas?

Oh! How many of Jay’s questions did YOU get right? (And, yes, I know it’s debatable what Paul Revere actually said, as is the Betsy Ross legend, but they’re still in the school history books. I think.)

  1. wken says:

    On July 4th we celebrate the 4th of July … sigh …

    Even if some of this stuff is apocryphal (and we didn’t win the Revolutionary War in 1776 … Leno gets that wrong), it’s common-knowledge that people should know.

    If I ask what kind of tree George Washington cut down, you should know it’s a cherry tree, even if it never happened.

    Sigh …

  2. LD Jackson says:

    I am afraid it is a combination of the material they are taught and the lack of understanding of the importance of our history and heritage. It’s really a shame.

  3. Steve Dennis says:

    This really is unbelievable! I don’t know what else to say. You have to wonder what our children are being taught in place of basic American history.

  4. sirrahc says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys. And a nice follow-up by Steve over at America’s Watchtower.

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