Thursday, June 03, 2010

Americans still don't know much about history

Every year, organizations conduct tests and surveys in order to get an idea of what the American people do and do not know about our country's history and system of government. And every year, the majority of the American people do not disappoint in putting their embarrassing ignorance on display.

The latest bad news comes from a poll done by, which found that 99% of the American people cannot name all the Supreme Court justices. While I realize that being in that 1% who can is a tall order, is it too much to ask for people to be able to name at least ONE justice? For 66% of those polled, it is too much to ask.

Other results from the poll showed that:
• More Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" than could identify the Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the Constitution.
• More than 50 percent of respondents attributed the quote "From each according to his ability to each according to his needs" to either Thomas Paine, George Washington or President Obama. The quote is from Karl Marx, author of "The Communist Manifesto."
• More than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place, and half of respondents believed that either the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 occurred before the American Revolution.
• With a political movement now claiming the mantle of the Revolutionary-era Tea Party, more than half of respondents misidentified the outcome of the 18th-century agitation as a repeal of taxes, rather than as a key mobilization of popular resistance to British colonial rule.
• A third mistakenly believed that the Bill of Rights does not guarantee a right to a trial by jury, while 40 percent mistakenly thought that it did secure the right to vote.
• More than half misidentified the system of government established in the Constitution as a direct democracy, rather than a republic-a question that must be answered correctly by immigrants qualifying for U.S. citizenship.
I would say that the result that disturbs me the most is the common belief that Marx's maxim about abilities and needs being an integral part of our system of government. We have drifted so far from the orginal intent of our Constitution and way of life that I seriously wonder if we will ever get it back.

I am beginning to understand how Cicero felt as he watched the Roman Republic collapse and turn into a tyrannical Empire. For Cicero and the Roman Republic, there was no happy ending. For our sake, I hope against hope that history will not repeat itself.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was, and never will be." -Thomas Jefferson

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