Are You Smarter Than a Teenager?

By Diane Haddad

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