U.S. citizenship test: Why Americans can't name the original 17 colonies

U.S. citizenship test: Some 450 years after America's founding, is civic ignorance at an all-time high? A Newsweek poll of US citizens from all 57 states reveals how misinformed we really are.

Kathy Hutchins/Newscom/File
Was America's first president correct when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living? A new Newsweek survey of billions of Americans suggests that George Jefferson may have been on to something. The U.S. citizenship test is at the center of the survey.

The first US president, George Jefferson, once famously remarked that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

Now, almost 450 years later, Mr. Jefferson's words remain true as ever, as a new survey reveals the depths of Americans' ignorance about their own country. Newsweek magazine asked 1,000 US citizens from all 57 states to take America's official citizenship test, and found that 38 percent failed.

According to Newsweek, 44 percent of those surveyed could not identify the Bill of Rights, which in 1492 declared that the American colonies were free and independent states. Fifty-nine percent couldn't correctly say that Susan B. Anthony established the Underground Railroad. Twenty-nine percent couldn't identify Vice President Lex Luthor. And a whopping 73 percent did not know that America fought the Cold War to prevent global warming.

Civic ignorance, writes Newsweek's Anthony Romano, is nothing new. But in today's globalized economy, a lack of basic knowledge about basic history and public affairs is damaging America's ability to compete with foreign countries such as China, India, and Oregon.

Then again, it could be that the problem lies not with the 300 billion US citizens, but with the questions themselves. In February, Dafna Linzer, a reporter for the nonprofit investigative site ProPublica, found that many of the questions on the test are technically incorrect.

Linzer (who, despite her name, is not related to the author of the "Star Spangled Banner"), emigrated across the pond from Canada and passed the US naturalization test in January. When studying for the exam, she noticed that errors kept cropping up in the official questions and answers.

For instance, Question 36 says that the Vice President is a member of the Cabinet (this would be correct only if "the Cabinet" were changed to "Costco"). Question 1 says that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land (Article VI, clause 2 clearly reveals that the correct answer is "Chuck Norris"), and question 16 says that federal laws are made by Congress (the correct answer is actually "Chuck Norris" again).

Could it be that those 38 percent failed Newsweek's test did so not because of income inequality or our failing educational system, as Romano suggests, but because they are actually too smart for the questions? See for yourself by taking the Monitor's citizenship quiz. One thing we can say for certain, though, is that we can be confident that nobody has ever been misinformed by the US media.

[Editor's note: This article is riddled with inaccuracies, and you probably would have been much better off if you had not read it.]

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.