Ex­ec­u­tive ig­no­rance: Pres­i­den­tial facts are lost on Amer­i­cans

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Jen­nifer Harper

The found­ing who? Most Amer­i­cans are not on a first-name ba­sis with the na­tion’s most-prom­i­nent “found­ing fa­thers” — the first four pres­i­dents. Only 7 per­cent of us can reel off the names of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, John Adams, Thomas Jef­fer­son and James Madi­son in or­der, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey re­leased Aug. 15 by the U.S. Mint.

The fed­eral agency pro­nounced the find­ings “a shock­ingly small num­ber.”

We’re a lit­tle hazy on a few other pres­i­den­tial par­tic­u­lars. Only 22 per­cent of Amer­i­cans know that there have been 43 U.S. pres­i­dents to date — even though the pop­u­lar des­ig­na­tions “Bush 41” and “Bush 43” get bandied about plenty in the press.

In ad­di­tion, just 21 per­cent of us know whose faces are carved on Mount Rush­more. For the his­tor­i­cally chal­lenged, they are Jef­fer­son, Wash­ing­ton, Abra­ham Lin­coln and Theodore Roo­sevelt who loom over the 3 mil­lion an­nual vis­i­tors who come to marvel at the South Dakota site.

Mean­while, just over a third are aware that Jef­fer­son’s face is fea­tured on the nickel coin, while 28 per­cent know that John Adams and John Quincy Adams were “the orig­i­nal fa­ther-son pair of pres­i­dents,” the sur­vey found.

It was com­mis­sioned to show­case a new Jef­fer­son $1 coin, which went into cir­cu­la­tion on Aug. 16.

Should we fret over his­toric clue­less­ness? Maybe.

“I’ve been out there talk­ing about Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton for a decade, and yes, there are a lot of gaps in what peo­ple know,” said Richard Brookhiser, most re­cently au­thor of “What Would the Founders Do?: Our Ques­tions, Their An­swers.”

“There’s a lot of pos­i­tive sen­ti­ment out there about the Found­ing Fa­thers, so I try to build on that. If you rail too much about what peo­ple don’t know, you make your­self de­pressed,” Mr. Brookhiser said.

“As our his­tory gets longer, it’s a strug­gle to find a bal­ance in what we teach,” said Rober t Townsend, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of re­search and publi­ca­tions for the Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion. “It gets harder to de­ter­mine the right sets of facts which should be crammed in peo­ple’s heads.”

Mr. Townsend added that his­tory is “get­ting squeezed out of the schools. English and math skills get mea­sured, but not nec­es­sar­ily his­tory.”

The new sur­vey is not the first re­search to re­veal Amer­ica’s lack of his­tor­i­cal prow­ess. A Zogby poll re­leased last year, for ex­am­ple, found that while 77 per­cent of us could iden­tify two of the Seven Dwarfs, less than a quar­ter could name a pair of Supreme Court jus- tices. Three-quar­ters could name the Three Stooges, while 42 per­cent knew that the leg­isla­tive, ex­ec­u­tive and ju­di­cial branches made up the three branches of fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

Syra­cuse Univer­sity com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sor Robert Thompson — who helped de­sign the Zogby poll — was not too per­turbed at the find­ings, though.

“Th­ese re­sults are not about how ‘dumb’ Amer­i­cans are, but how much more ef­fec­tive pop­u­lar cul­ture in­for­ma­tion is com­mu­ni­cated and re­tained by cit­i­zens than many of the mes­sages that come from gov­ern­ment, ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions and the me­dia,” Mr. Thompson said.

The U.S. Mint has been at­tempt­ing to right that trend from the get-go. The Pres­i­den­tial $1 Coin Act of 2005 re­quires the di­rec­tor of the agency “to work closely with con­sumer groups, me­dia out­lets, and schools to in­crease pub­lic aware­ness” of the coins, and their at­ten­dant his­to­ries. The Jef­fer­son coin is third in a se­ries of pres­i­den­tial coins is­sued in 2007. A Madi­son coin fol­lows Nov. 15; fu­ture cur­rency will honor pres­i­dents in the or­der in which they served.

Some have a long wait. Coins for Richard M. Nixon and Ger­ald Ford will not be seen un­til 2016.

“This ser ies of cir­cu­lat­ing coins pro­vides the per­fect op­por­tu­nity for Amer­i­cans to learn more about our pres­i­dents and the crit­i­cal role they played in some of our na­tion’s his­toric mile­stones,” noted U.S. Mint Di­rec­tor Ed Moy.

The sur­vey of 1,000 adults was con­ducted July 18 to 25 and has a mar­gin of er­ror of four per­cent­age points.

Astrid Riecken / The Wash­ing­ton Times

On the money: Jimmy Plotts, 7, of Col­lege Park, Md., checked out the third in the pres­i­den­tial se­ries from the U.S. Mint — the Thomas Jef­fer­son $1 coin — at its re­lease last week.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.