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American Teens Need a History Lesson

Boys more accurate than girls

by George H. Gallup Jr. and Alec Gallup


PRINCETON, NJ -- Some basic facts of history are missing from the heads of a notable majority of teens. This is the finding from the latest Gallup Youth Survey, in which we asked American teens aged 13 to 17 a number of questions about American and world history.

About four in ten teens surveyed (42%) know that 1492 was the year of Columbus' discovery of America. An additional 22% gave some answer other than 1492; more than one-third (36%) said they do not know.

Senior-high history teachers have apparently been more successful than junior-high teachers at getting this fact into young people's heads. Only 34% of teens 13-15 years old pick 1492, compared to 52% of teens 16-17 years old.

Less than four in ten teens (39%) knew that it was the Civil War in which states' rights were a major issue. About one in five (18%) gave some other answer, but a large minority (43%) said they don't know which war was concerned with states' rights.

Both age and gender affect knowledge of the states' rights issue in the Civil War; boys and older teens are more likely to get this one right than are girls and younger teens.

The year of the United States' birth is apparently an even greater mystery to teens. Only one teen in four (25%) said that 1776 was the year in which the United States declared its independence. About one-fifth (19%) answered with some other year. More than half of teens (56%) said they do not know the year of American independence. Boys are more likely than girls to know their country's birthday (30% of the boys know the year was 1776, compared to 20% of girls).

Perhaps not surprisingly, above-average students and students whose parents both attended college are more likely than other teens to get the correct answers to all three of these history questions. And teens with one college-educated parent are more likely than teens with no college-educated parents to get the answers right.

What document guarantees the right of a free press in this country? Many teens are unsure about the answer to this question as well. Less than half (42%) gave some semblance of a correct answer, with 18% naming the Bill of Rights, 16% naming the Constitution, and 8% mentioning the First Amendment. Another 42% of teens said they don't know the answer.

It's not just American history that buffaloes American teenagers, however. The poll suggests that today's teenagers may need more than a few lessons in world history as well.

Just two-thirds of American teens (66%) are able to identify Adolf Hitler with Germany. One in seven (14%) give some other answer; 21% do not know with which nation Hitler is associated.

Four in ten teens (41%) are able to associate Indira Gandhi with her home country of India. A small minority (13%) give some other answer; nearly half (46%) simply don't know.

Napoleon Bonaparte means "France" to just over a third of teens (36%), with 23% giving some other answer and 40% saying they don't know where he was from.

Only one-fourth of teens (25%) can associate Winston Churchill with England. Just as many (27%) give some other response; fully half (50 %) cannot identify Churchill with a particular nation.

In every instance of identifying these world leaders, boys are more up on their international history than are girls. Three-fourths of boys (74 %) can associate Adolf Hitler with Germany, compared to just 58% of girls.

Half of boys (51%) know Indira Gandhi is associated with India, versus just 31%of girls. Nearly half of boys (46%) are aware of Bonaparte's connection to France, versus just 26% of girls.

And while the gap is narrower regarding Churchill, 27% of boys can tell us he was from England, compared to 22% of girls.

It is also the case that older students (16 and 17 years old) remember their world history more successfully than do younger students (13 to 15 years old). Fully 72% of older students associate Hitler with Germany, compared with 62% of younger students.

Fifty percent of older students know to associate Indira Gandhi with India, versus just 35% of younger students. And 44% of older students identify Bonaparte with France, compared with 31% of younger students.

For Churchill, the figure is 31% of older students compared with just 20% of younger ones.

Students of above-average standing, students from "white collar" families, and students with at least one college-educated parent are also more likely than their counterparts to associate these world leaders with the correct country. Teens whose parents both attended college are more likely to know these answers than are teens with one or no college-educated parents.

Teens living in suburbs are also more likely to have the correct answers than are teens in urban or rural areas or small towns.

Survey Methods
These findings are based on telephone interviews with a representative national cross-section of 501 American teenagers, 13 to 17 years old. Interviews were conducted from January through April 2000. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 5 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Please identify the nation with which each of these individuals is associated.

What nation do you identify with . . ?

  ALL TEENS Boys Girls
Adolf Hitler (Germany) 66% 74% 58%
Indira Gandhi (India) 41% 51% 31%
Napoleon Bonaparte (France) 36% 46% 26%
Winston Churchill (England) 25% 27% 22%
  Correct answer All other answers Don't know
In what year did Christopher Columbus discover America? (1492) 42% 22% 36%
In what war was the issue of states' rights a major issue? (Civil War) 39% 18% 43%
What year did the United States declare its independence? (1776) 25% 19% 56%

What document guarantees the right of a free press in this country?

Bill of Rights 18%
Constitution 16%
First Amendment 8%
Declaration of Independence 11%
Freedom of speech 2%
All other answers 4%
Don't know 42%

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