The Things We Don’t Know

By Marc Williams

According to a recent Marist poll, only 58% of Americans know that the United States declared its independence in 1776.  Respondents were slightly better at identifying England as the country from which the United States sought independence; 76% responded correctly.

Revolutionary War Reenactment, Photo by Michael Warner

Similar polls are conducted year-round, demonstrating an often surprising lack of awareness of seemingly important issues.  For example, in November 2010, following the mid-term elections, a Pew Research Center poll revealed that most Americans knew that Republicans gained power in Congress but didn’t realize that Democrats maintained control of the Senate.

Far fewer are familiar with the specifics relating to the GOP’s victories. Fewer than half (46%) know that the Republicans will have a majority only in the House of Representatives when the new Congress convenes in January, while 38% can identify John Boehner as the incoming House speaker (Pew Research Center).

Polls like the one above from Pew Research Center are always surprising on some level.  This is perhaps because media outlets enjoy summarizing the results, highlighting only the most troubling findings. This particular poll examined American awareness on a variety of current events and the respondents did pretty well when asked about the BP oil spill and their general sense of federal budget deficit was accurate.  With that in mind, I wonder if the results really are so troubling after all.

Is this just sensationalism or should we really be concerned?    In the BLS program at UNCG, we examine big ideas about the human experience.  But what about names, dates, and other factoids acquired by rote?  Who is responsible for this information?  Is it really important in the first place?  What, exactly, should we all be expected to know?

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