Academic Elites or American Idiots? Stanford Students Quizzed on Knowledge of American Civics

Stanford students are smart. Few people, except Cal students, would ever debate that claim. That said, how well do we know our American history? How about the Constitution and the workings of our government?

This past Tuesday, a Stanford Review writer had the opportunity to find out in an informal, ten-question survey of Stanford students. The questions were selected, with permission, from the thirty-three used by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Civic Literacy Program. The quiz was completely voluntary, and around thirty people declined to take it. Thus, the results may be inflated, as persons with a greater knowledge of American civics may have been more willing to take the quiz than those who did not.

The potential for self-selection aside, our survey exposed some interesting strengths and weaknesses within various segments of the student population. Surprisingly, there was no significant difference between U.S. citizens and international students. The seven international students interviewed averaged a score of 71% on the quiz. The thirty-three American citizens, meanwhile, were only slightly better at 76%. Such a slight lead is disheartening, given the time dedicated in public schools to educating students about American government and history.

What is perhaps more disheartening, though, is the fact that the students who study these very topics (Political Science, History, and related majors) did no better. While there were only four of them—representing 10% of total respondents—they only mustered a score of 73% on the quiz. Given the small sample of students, however, these numbers may not be completely representative.

Despite their less-than-perfect scores, Stanford students were able to answer some questions perfectly. One, for instance, asked what Sputnik was (correct answer: the first manmade satellite). All respondents answered correctly. Additionally, all were able to name the three branches of government.

Other questions, however, most were on the opposite end of the spectrum. Only 20% were able to identify the quote “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” as from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Furthermore, only 40% of those surveyed could identify the term “wall of separation” between church and state as from Thomas Jefferson’s Letters. Keeping in mind that it was a multiple choice test, such low scores are surprising. Indeed, only two students scored 100% on the quiz overall.

While we did falter on some questions, though, it appears Stanford students performed better than average Americans. Based upon statistics from ISI’s website, Americans averaged a score of 58% on the ten questions asked; the forty Stanford students averaged 75%. But once again, the survey conducted by the Stanford Review was not scientific and was meant to be informal. There is a possibility for bias.

Though Stanford students can take heart than they were relatively better, it appears that the nation as a whole suffers from a grave deficiency of knowledge about American civics and free-market economics. According to ISI, questions about actions prohibited by the Bill of Rights, the topics of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, the source of the Gettysburg Address, and the difference between free markets vs. centralized planning failed to garner beyond a correct response rate of 25%. Even more disturbing, the ISI survey showed that respondents who had held or currently hold an elected office averaged a lower correct answer response rate. The average American was better able to identify the Cuban Missile Crisis at a rate of 13% greater than elected officials were able to identify the crisis. ISI recognizes this alarming trend amongst politicians on their website,

ISI reported several major findings about the state of American civic literacy. Among them: Paula Abdul was identified as a judge on American Idol by 56% of Americans, but only 21% could identify Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Overall, 71% of Americans failed the test. College grads weren’t stellar, either. On average, they scored a measly 57%, little better than those who had only a high school education. In other words, they failed the test. Maybe Stanford students should start cramming as well.

Survey Questions

Which of the following are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence?
A. life, liberty, and property
B. honor, liberty, and peace
C. liberty, health, and community
D. life, respect, and equal protection
E. life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

2) What are the three branches of government?
A. executive, legislative, judicial
B. executive, legislative, military
C. bureaucratic, military, industry
D. federal, state, local

3) What was the source of the following phrase: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”?
A. the speech “I Have a Dream”
B. Declaration of Independence
C. U.S. Constitution
D. Gettysburg Address

4) Under Our Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. What is one power of the federal government?
A. Make treaties
B. Make zoning laws
C. Maintain prisons
D. Establish standards for doctors and lawyers

5) Name one right or freedom guaranteed by the first amendment.
A. Right to bear arms
B. Due process
C. Religion
D. Right to counsel

6) The phrase that in America there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state appears in:
A. George Washington’s Farewell Address
B. the Mayflower Compact
C. the Constitution
D. the Declaration of Independence
E. Thomas Jefferson’s letters

7) In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
A. argued for the abolition of slavery
B. advocated black separatism
C. morally defended affirmative action
D. expressed his hopes for racial justice and brotherhood
E. proposed that several of America’s founding ideas were discriminatory

8) Sputnik was the name given to the first:
A. telecommunications system
B. animal to travel to space
C. hydrogen bomb
D. manmade satellite

9) Name two countries that were our enemies during World War II.
A. Canada and Mexico
B. Germany and Japan
C. England and Spain
D. China and Russia

10) The Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits:
A. prayer in public school
B. discrimination based on race, sex, or religion
C. the ownership of guns by private individuals
D. establishing an official religion for the United States
E. the president from vetoing a line item in a spending bill


  1. E 2. A 3. D 4. A 5. C 6. E 7. D 8. D 9. B 10. D

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