Wednesday, September 4, 2013

General Knowledge Norms: 2013 update

How's your Cultural Knowledge?
Take this quiz to find out.

1. What is the highest mountain in South America?

2. What is the last name of the man who was most responsible for photographing the U.S. Civil War?

3. What was the name of the largest Confederate military prison during the Civil War?

4. What is the last name of the Cuban leader that Castro overthrew?

5. What is the last name of the author of "Our Town"?

6. What is the last name of the author who wrote "Brothers Karamazov"?

7. What is the last name of the first man to run the mile in under four minutes?

8. What is the name of the mountain range that separates Asia from Europe?

9. What is the last name of the actor who portrayed the sheriff in the movie "High Noon"?

10. What is the last name of the pilot of the U-2 spy plane shot down over Russia in 1960?

11. What is the last name of the man who said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country"?

12. What was the name of the Union ironclad ship that fought the Confederate ironclad Merrimack?

13. What was the last name of the captain of the British ship "Bounty" when the mutiny occurred?

14. What was the last name of the female star of the movie "Casablanca"?


You probably either know these or you don't. Add up your total correct. (You can scroll down to the end for the answers.)

I'm guessing that my dad and my friends would get at least 10 right out of 14. I got them all right, but I was on Jeopardy, so I'm a freak.

Nearly 300 questions like this were given to American college students in 1980 and 2012. The results are found in this research report. Most of the commentary on this research misses the most important point, I think.

The point is that in the 2012 research sample of 671 American college students, NOT A SINGLE STUDENT KNEW THE ANSWER TO ANY OF THE ABOVE QUESTIONS.

Here are some items that only one student out of 671 knew (for all I know, it might have been the same one student who got them all right): Camus wrote "The Stranger"; Marconi invented the wireless radio; Alexander the Great undid the Gordian knot; Nelson was the British admiral who won the Battle of Trafalgar; Hannibal was from Carthage; Kafka wrote "The Trial".

Less than 5% of the students knew that Curie discovered radium; Huxley wrote "Brave New World"; Nobel invented dynamite; Custer lost the battle of the Little Bighorn; Hippocrates was the most famous Greek doctor;  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories; Monticello was the name of Thomas Jefferson's mansion; Budapest is the capital of Hungary; Euclid is the "father of geometry; Mozart wrote "Don Giovanni"; and Ian Fleming wrote the James Bond novels.

But it gets worse. Only 93% could name the "horse-like animal with black and white stripes" (zebra). Only 82% could name the "animal that runs the fastest" (cheetah). Only 75% knew "the last name of the brothers who flew the first airplane at Kitty Hawk" (Wright). Just 66% could name "the ship that carried the Pilgrims to America in 1620" (Mayflower). Only 56% could name "the largest planet in our solar system" (Jupiter). A mere 44% could name "the man who rode horseback in 1775 to warn that the British were coming" (Revere). Astonishingly, only 32% could provide "the name of the extinct reptiles known as "terrible lizards" (dinosaurs).  Just 27% could "name the longest river in South America," and only 20% could "name the mountain range in which Mount Everest is located" (Himalayas). A mere 16% could say "which country was the first to use gunpowder" (China). [By the way, I tested my two boys on these questions last night and they got them all right -- they are 7 and 9 years old.]

Based on these results, I would recommend scrapping the entire system of public education in this country (and all the federal and state intrusions on private education), and starting all over. Remember -- these are high school graduates who have matriculated at a four-year college, so they are the "best" products of our school systems. It was true in 1983 and it is true today:

"The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

"If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

Answers: Aconcagua, Brady, Andersonville, Batista, Wilder, Dostoevsky, Bannister, Ural, Cooper, Powers, Hale, Monitor, Bligh, Bergman


  1. Oh come on! Look at the bright side. I bet 99% of students know how to send a text using android. And the ten signs of sexism in the classroom. And the 5 main reasons bullying must be stopped. And the 13 reasons we need to stop gender-based discrimination.

  2. the quiz comes off as a little generationally biased when 1/3 of the questions happened during our father's time and not the current generations. What was the last name of the pilot shot down in the U-2? That happened in the 1960s. It wasn't history for the previous generation it was news.

    1. The problem isn't that most people knew who Francis Gary Powers was in the 1960s but rather that NOT A SINGLE college student today knows who he was. I would prefer that most of them know about the Cold War, and I would hope that at least one of the 671 test takers would know enough about the Cold War to recall the U-2 shootdown, and yes, even to have happened across the name of the pilot. That 0% of the them knew this fact reflects a failure of intergenerational tranmission of knowledge. When you know who Gary Francis Powers is, I can be confident that you probably know a fair bit about the Cold War -- if you don't, then you probably don't.

      As for Casablanca and High Noon, both of these are among the finest examples of the quintessentially American artform. Why shouldn't the younger generations be familiar with these films? Isn't it a shame that they are not? Perhaps if they saw some good movies, they would be better equipped to tell a good movie from crap?

  3. All setting us on a dangerous path to "idiotcracy"

  4. I find this very interesting and agree that it is disconcerting that the respondents showed such a lack of knowledge. Honestly, the items you listed that less than 5% knew were things that I had thought were fairly well known. (Admittedly, I didn't do all that well on the 14 items listed at the start of the post.)
    Americans have a reputation for poor general knowledge, but I was wondering of you were aware of any studies that compare general knowledge in different countries?


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