Our Love/Hate Relationship With “Mere Facts”

by Robert Pondiscio
March 22nd, 2011

The Daily Beast serves up that hardiest perennial of “tsk, tsk” journalism: a poll highlighting our collective lack of history and civic knowledge.   The U.S. citizenship test is comprised of 100 questions about American government, systems of government, rights and responsibilities, American history and civics, notes the Beast.  “Ten questions from the 100 are chosen randomly for the test-taker.  To pass, one must get at least six right.”  About four in ten Americans can’t clear the bar we set for would-be naturalized citizens.

Tsk, tsk. 

The essential conundrum.  We in education blithely dismiss background knowledge as trivia and “mere facts,” but we (and more importantly, the broader world) continue to judge harshly those not in possession of facts we take for granted.  Take the test yourself.  The questions are of the kind every school child used to know back when school kids used to know things.  And to be fair, some of the questions are trivia.  The ability to name the authors of the Federalist Papers, for example, is probably not as important as understanding something about the role of the papers in the ratification of the Constitution.  But the unspoken question to ask yourself is whether it would impact your opinion about a friend, neighbor or colleague if they couldn’t answer the questions.

Perhaps we should change the immigration test to a DBQ format.  Or perhaps insist on naturalization by portfolio assessment. 

(H/T Joanne Jacobs)


  1. And how many of these questions could be answered with one click of a google? When 80% of my students know http://lmgtfy.com/ and regularly embarrass the remainder with absurd and useless questions, it’s refreshing to find that the rest of th world agrees with them. It might behoove some congressional voices to double check before they quote – as fact – trivia that confuses Concord, Massachusetts, with Concord, New Hampshire!

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — March 22, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

  2. Joe,

    At least Concord, Massachusetts and Concord, New Hampshire are less than 75 miles apart.

    Not quite as glaring as being “President of these 57 states”, if you ask me.

    Comment by Cindy — March 22, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

  3. Robert, I agree that it’s not essential for a citizen to be able to name the authors of the Federalist papers, but (in a similar vein) to be able to attribute a position to heirs of Hamilton or Jefferson or Madison — the appeal to ethos — strikes me as one very relevant aspect of forging a successful argument.

    As I tell my students when I’m in not-feeling-like-sugarcoating-it moments, nobody really cares what you THINK…at least not until you can be convincing. Make a good argument, and you will have access to power. The ability to appeal successfully to both logos and ethos is an important tool in that regard. (And I’ll toss in a salute to pathos as well.) Takes intelligence, knowledge, and skill, of course.

    Not to quibble, though: I agree with your overall thesis.

    (@ Cindy, by the way: I don’t know if the Concord thing is a misstatement or a failure of knowledge, so I can’t judge, but “57 states” was so obviously a misstatement that it doesn’t “glare” even a little bit. I hope we don’t fail to discriminate between misstating and not knowing.)

    Comment by Carl Rosin — March 22, 2011 @ 10:54 pm

  4. O.K., Carl, I’ll give the POTUS the benefit of the doubt on the 57 states, but how do you explain these:

    Claiming a twister took 10,000 lives in Kansas and wiped out an entire city when 12 lives were lost?

    Confusing his being in Sioux Falls, SD with Sioux City, Iowa? (Don’t use the campaign trail excuse, that would also benefit Michelle Bachmann).

    “Sen. Clinton, I think, is much better known, coming from a nearby state of Arkansas. So it’s not surprising that she would have an advantage in some of those states in the middle.” Since when is Arkansas closer to Kentucky than Illinois?

    I don’t want to go outside of the weather and geography on his gaffes because then it would become subjective on whether his actions were due to failure of knowledge or stategically motivated.

    Comment by Cinidy — March 23, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.