U.S. students would get an F if they were graded on their knowledge of Memorial Day, according to results from a survey that tested the knowledge of young people on war-related questions from U.S. history.
A 60-question multiple-choice exam focusing on history, government and economics was administered by the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy to more than 14,000 randomly selected seniors and freshmen on 50 campuses of private and public universities across the country. The survey was given on behalf of Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a right-leaning civics nonprofit organization.
While Memorial Day is a holiday that was established as a result of the Civil War, the results of the exam show that only about half of the students surveyed were able to answer a series of questions about that war and other U.S.-involved conflicts.
For example, 48.5 percent of students were able to identify that the Civil War battles of Fort Sumter, Gettysburg and Appomattox were listed in the correct chronological order and about 60 percent of students correctly answered that Abraham Lincoln was elected president during the period of 1851-1875.
Richard Brake, ISI's director of university stewardship, said the survey was directed at college students, but that the results are "an indictment on high schools" where students are not retaining information about U.S. history.
"People ask, 'Why does it matter if students know about the specifics of the War of 1812,' " he said. "Knowing the specifics is a reflection of whether you've been exposed to the information."
Brake's group pushes for colleges to require more courses in history, government and economics because he said they believe it's important to living in a republic and developing future leaders.
The results of his survey do not surprise local teachers.
U.S. history teacher Marissa Chavez at Mountain Pointe High School in Tempe said her students generally don't see the value in history and so don't retain many of the facts she teaches them.
"I asked one of my classes why they would have Monday off if we were still in school and not one of them raised their hand," she said. "I was surprised. Even though we don't have a specific lesson plan for Memorial Day, I don't understand how can they not have any clue from their family or friends."
She said her curriculum requires her to spend a lot of time talking about war, specifically the Civil War and World Wars I and II, but students don't take much interest and she's not sure why.
"I've talked with my friends and colleagues about whether students are becoming less patriotic than previous generations," she said. "I don't know if that's what it is, but there's a general lack of understanding."
Arizona State University professor Michael Rubinoff, an American historian, said he thinks high school students may lack the maturity to appreciate why U.S. history should be important to them.
"The word 'history' doesn't make people feel fuzzy and warm," he said. "Part of the problem is that most teenagers don't like to be in school, period. That's tragic because some of them are very poorly prepared for college."
Rubinoff said people shouldn't be too shocked by the low scores of the ISI survey because, in fairness to the students, teaching the origins of holidays is not part of the history curriculum. Most people get Memorial Day, observed to remember those who died in wars, mixed up with Veterans Day, observed for those who served and lived.
He said details such as holiday origins are part of the minutiae of the subject, but that he does wish more people would be enthused about the great events and people who shaped our culture.
"I bemoan the fact that there are so many people who find history boring," he said. "People are getting killed by the thousands in wars, there are fearsome presidential campaigns every four years. Not knowing about history puts someone, just to cope as a citizen, at a real disadvantage."