Sunday, October 24, 2010

There ain't half been some clever bastards

In 1952, a Gallup Poll asked people if they could identify some famous people (the questions were introduced as things that "might be on a radio quiz program").  Answers that said what a person did were counted as correct, and those that just gave his nationality were counted as "approximately correct."  In 1975, a Gallup poll asked respondents to identify the same people.  This time, the answers were just counted as correct or incorrect, and they didn't explain what it took to be correct.  So I give two figures for 1952--the first just counts correct and the second includes approximately correct.  The results:
              1952    1975
Beethoven    62 63    84
Raphael      30 30    35
Tolstoy      17 23    29
Freud        16 21    47
Aristotle    25 33    44
Rubens       15 15    24
Shakespeare  78 80    89
Gutenberg    17 24    24
Karl Marx    26 32    41
Napoleon     57 66    58
Columbus     88 89    92

Regardless of how you count the "approximate" answers, there were gains from 1952 to 1975, and in some cases big gains (e. g., Freud).  In a way, that's not surprising, since levels of formal education increased over that time.  But levels of political knowledge (things like ability to name public officials or knowing which party controlled Congress) haven't changed much since about 1950.  So the good news is that people were learning something during the 1960s and 1970s.  

As is often the case, the question hasn't been asked recently.  There are a lot more surveys than there used to be, but they tend to focus more heavily on politics.  I'd gladly sacrifice a few more questions on whether you approve of the job Congress is doing for a repeat of this one. 

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