Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Just How Smart Are Fifth Graders?

A number of my friends have told me about this television show, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? In the program, grown-up contestants are asked perfectly ordinary questions from elementary school textbooks in subjects like math, geography, science, and history. Adding to the spectacle, the host commends the contestant’s courage when they choose to answer a question typically asked of a nine-year-old, rather than tackling one of the questions ordinarily asked of seven-year-olds. To give you an example of the difficulty of the game, in a recent episode the $500,000 question was: “What Revolutionary leader wrote the influential pamphlet ‘Common Sense’ in 1776?” A half-a-million dollars to know Thomas Paine? You Americans!


While it is entertaining enough to watch adults try to remember what it is that they inevitably learned when they were in grade school, it is not amusing to discover that many current students don’t know the basics of American history. The U.S. Department of Education recently issued its National Assessment of Educational Progress. The results are disheartening. 73% of twelfth-graders scored below the proficient level in civics, 78% of eighth-graders scored below the proficient level, and 76% of fourth-graders scored below that level. To put this into perspective, 72% of eighth graders could not explain the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence. This is a national tragedy.

We Americans—unlike citizens of other countries—need teachers to teach us what it means to be an American. We need to be reminded that this country was founded on the principles of liberty and right, on a solemn declaration that we ordinary human beings are capable of governing ourselves. And this is what the Ashbrook Center does. We teach undergraduates and high school teachers what it means to be an American, and uniquely enable school teachers to pass on this knowledge to their students. But we can’t do it without your help. Your gift will help us to preserve this nation’s heritage, so please make a tax-deductible contribution today to help us in this vital mission. After that, you can match your wits against fifth graders by playing the trivia game here.

Discussions - 6 Comments

Yeah, but I'll bet they know all about Harriet Tubman and the rain forest.

Damned straight, John. If my kids are any indication, learning American History is very selective. Lots and lots of the Underground Railway (actually, year after year of this), but virtually nothing about early ethnic immigration, the Enlightenment foundations of the Founding, etc. If it can't be related to race, gender, evil capitalist exploitation, jingoistic American imperialism, or eco-degradation, it's barely taught.

Such are the wages of allowing the Left to take over our basic non-economic institutions (something the market hasn't been able to prevent).

John's right

... and these 5th graders will crush you in the important disciplines of self-esteem, recycling, and how to put a condom on a bananna.

The left's definition of education is radically ideological. By the left's standards, the schools are doing just fine. (The Three R's are actually: Racism, Reproduction, and Recycling.) That's why there's no point in discussing education with them, and even less point in discussing education in civics, history, and the humanities. A presidential candidate who is courageous enough, and tuned-in enough, to address this in a serious way -- not from Bush's lowest-common-denominator, pragmatist's perspective -- would help himself considerably in both the Republican primaries and the general election.

Such are the wages of allowing the Left to take over our basic non-economic institutions (something the market hasn't been able to prevent).

Given that the schools are by and large government-run, isn't it a little unreasonable to expect the market to prevent it?

Well, I think that's my point, John. A enormous amount of social life requires something other than market-logic. The tendency of libertarians to see markets as the solution for most everything (and yes, such people exist...I sometimes think I've met every one of them) is misguided, and is in part responsible for our complacency during the great "take-over" of our society's institutions.

Just as an example, many libertarians view massive immigration in the light of individual freedom and economic advantage, but there are so many more (non-economic) consequences of such immigration. Indeed, I suspect economics is rather short-term and tangential to the actual impact of massive movements of people.

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