Are American Teens Losing the Humanities?

A recent study sponsored by Washington, D.C.-based organization Common Core revealed that almost 20 percent of 1,200 American teens could not identify the American enemy in World War II, and more than 25 percent mistakenly believed that Columbus sailed to America after 1750. Half did not know whom Sen. Joseph McCarthy investigated.

"It is easy to make light of such ignorance. In reality, however, a deep lack of knowledge is neither humorous nor trivial," said Lynne Munson, Common Core's executive director.

Test your 17-year-old knowledge. Take parts of the quiz HERE.

The report, titled "Still at Risk: What Students Don't Know, Even Now," was Munson's brainchild. It was her idea to conduct a survey drawn on a pool of questions from an earlier survey taken in 1986. Munson and her assistant selected the questions, then consulted Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, who analyzed the results of the survey and authored the report.

"The question of how much our 17-year-olds know is particularly pressing, given broader social trends. After all, these students are less than a year away from reaching legal adulthood, making them eligible to vote and serve in the nation's armed forces," Hess said.

He noted that there is no current reliable national measure of how much students know about history and literature, and pointed out, "More disturbing than the aggregate results may be some of the items that many 17-year-olds did not know."

Hess pointed out some of the following results from Common Core's survey:

- Nearly a third could not identify "ask not what your country can do for you" as the words of President John F. Kennedy.

- A third did not know that the Bill of Rights is the source of American rights to freedom of religion and speech.

- Just two in five could place the Civil War in the correct 50-year period, and just half knew that The Federalist papers were written to encourage ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

- Nearly a quarter could not correctly identify Adolf Hitler.

- Less than half could identify the literary figures of Job or Oedipus, while barely one in two could identify the plot of George Orwell's immortal book "1984."

"What should we take from these findings? It is essential that parents, policymakers, and educators examine what we are doing when it comes to the teaching of history and culture," Hess said.

"We must ask whether popular reform currents are delivering the results we wish and, if not, what we should do about it."