Are You Smarter Than a Teenager?

Are You Smarter Than a Teenager?

It’s time to repeat the annual hand-wringing over how little US students know about history. In a January phone survey, 1,200 17-year-olds were asked 33 basic multiple-choice questions in history and literature. The results:Fewer than half could place the American Civil War in the correct half-century.Half didn’t know...

It’s time to repeat the annual hand-wringing over how little US students know about history. In a January phone survey, 1,200 17-year-olds were asked 33 basic multiple-choice questions in history and literature. The results:

  • Fewer than half could place the American Civil War in the correct half-century.
  • Half didn’t know what the Renaissance is.
  • More than a quarter thought Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World sometime after 1750.
  • About a quarter were unable to correctly identify Adolf Hitler as Germany’s chancellor during World War II.

Though what the students didn’t know is appalling, they answered right on 67 percent of the history questions, earning a C overall. (But they got an F in literature.) On the bright side, 97 percent of the teens correctly picked Martin Luther King Jr. as the man who declared, “I have a dream;” 88 percent knew the bombing of Pearl Harbor led us into World War II.

An educational advocacy group called Common Core conducted the survey. Its report claims the results are evidence current education laws lead schools to focus too narrowly on the reading and math skills measured in accountability tests, at the expense of other subjects.

The report (where you can see a breakdown of all the questions) also shows kids with at least one college-educated parent performed better on the test.

I think genealogy is an antidote—you learn about history by exploring your family’s history. Click Comments (below) to let us know what you think, and see our resource listings for “junior” genealogists (and their adult teachers) at

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  1. My husband retired a few years ago and now teaches adult education. I hunt for dead people, as he calls it. We are both amazed at how little his students know. Granted these students don’t have a high school diploma and most are just looking for a job that pays more than minimal wage, but they don’t understand how to use credit and can’t figure out how much a 15 percent discount is. They are missing not only history but also some very basic skills needed today. I firmly believe that education begins in the home. Illiterate parents create illiterate students. If we asked the same questions of the parents I believe we would find the same statistics in the parental group.
    We have 2 grandsons, age 15 and 12. They have watched the history channel since they were both toddlers, before I started genealogy, and they still enjoy watching the history channel. I believe it is because both my daughter and son-in-law are interested in history. They have a great grandfather who was a POW in Germany, another who flew airplanes in WWII and a great great grandfather who served in WWI.
    My daughter is proud that her Grandmother was one of the original “Rosie the Riveters” having moved from ND to Detroit to build airplanes during WWII. She has a photo magnet on her refrigerator of the original Rosie poster.
    I will never forget the look on the faces of my grandsons the day I found the story of Barbara Culp McKinney in Elizabeth Ellets “Women of the American Revolution, Vol 3”, chapter titled Mrs. Steel. I read my photocopies of her story to them and they were fascinated. Barbara was the daughter of Hans Casper Kolb and the sister of my 5th great grandfather, Peter Culp. Barbara Culp McKinney, b. 1733 PA, d. 1782 Chester Co., SC, wife of Wm McKinney. In the summer of 1761, Barbara was 6 months pregnant and scalped by the Cherokees. She lived to raise a family. My 6th great grandmother, Sarah Ferguson was killed in that attack along with her son. Her other son is thought to have died in Dec of the wounds he suffered that day. You can read the story now online at google books.;pg=PA49&amp;dq=women+of+the+american+revolution,+vol+3+by+elizabeth+ellet&amp;lr=#PPA88,M1
    One of the funniest things my grandson said was “you can’t tell people who all you are related to because they think you are making it all up.” Besides Barbara Culp McKinney they are also distant cousins of Elvis, Rev. Billy Graham and are double related to the racing Earnhardts on both my side and their grandfathers side, hence the comment.
    I guess you can tell from this that I believe genealogy would certainly help. I’m not sure it is an antidote. Our social and educational ills are a much bigger problem than genealogy can cure. We need to start funding our schools with taxes other than property tax. If it’s necessary to pay inner city schoolteachers more money to get qualified teachers we will need a better way to fund those schools. Throwing money at the problem won’t fix everything, but if we can’t teach them in school we will end up paying to support them later.

  2. I am tracing my ancestors movements across the states as they received land grants after their military services. It is a facinating history of our country tracing you own family as they traveled and buit this great country of ours.

  3. Exploring one’s family history is an excellent means in which to learn history. For 17-year-olds it entails more, perhaps renewed, contact with the older generation(s). During much of human history extended families, where the elderly lived in the same household as the youngsters, were the rule, rather than the exception. Mobility changed that dramatically. Now days a young family may live in the Upper Midwest while the grandparents live in the Sun Belt.

    In researching and writing about four generations of my father’s family history, I had the good fortune of having his recollections and those of a great-aunt, as well as other family members. My great-aunt, who lived to age 99, had a wealth of historical information regarding both the family and the areas in which they lived. Much of it came from her maternal grandmother, who moved from Europe with the family, lived with them in Ohio, Oklahoma Territory, once again in Europe and then returning to the U.S., finally settling in Kansas.

    The younger generation needs to learn more history and genealogy presents a good start in filling that need.

  4. I am often appalled at the lack of teaching in schools today compared to when my husband and I were in school. I am more interested in history now that I do genealogy, and wish I had thought about family history when I was younger. I often look up timelines to include with family history. I have no one alive now, or at least in sound mind to ask for information. I wonder about the lost stories of those before me. I wish schools would encourage children to ask their families about their own history and make history come alive for them, while there is time to gather one’s own family history. I believe this would make history, as a whole, more interesting and relative, and would give
    families a reason to ask elders about family history. I think the sharing of some family stories in school could benefit all students in learning about history and about the hopes and struggles of people from all walks of life.