Executive ignorance: Presidential facts are lost on Americans
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.
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.