Modern measurements of Americans’ historical and political knowledge go back at least to 1943, when the New York Times surveyed college freshmen and found “a striking ignorance of even the most elementary aspects of United States history.” Reviewing nearly a half-century of data (1945-89) in What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters (1996), political scientists Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter conclude that, on balance, there has been a slight gain in Americans’ political knowledge, but one so modest that it makes more sense to speak of a remarkable stability. In 1945, for example, 43 percent of a national sample could name neither of their U.S. senators; in 1989, the figure was essentially unchanged at 45 percent. In 1952, 67 percent could name the vice president; in 1989, 74 percent could do so. In 1945, 92 percent of Gallup poll respondents knew that the term of the president is four years, compared with 96 percent in 1989. Whatever the explanations for dwindling voter turnout since 1960 may be, rising ignorance is not one of them.

Michael Schudson (PDF)