Pop goes the knowledge Survey: Teens know more about Hanson than Jefferson, prompting call for a museum of Constitution education.

September 03, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- What if you held the highest post in the judicial system, and millions of American students didn't know it? William H. Rehnquist is in just such a predicament.

Only 2 percent of American teen-agers, ages 13 to 17, are aware that he is chief justice of the United States, according to a poll released yesterday. By contrast, 95 percent of teens know that Will Smith played the wily Fresh Prince of Bel Air on a television sitcom.

A handful of such factoids, reflecting both expertise in pop culture and ignorance about topics related to the Constitution, were submitted to a Senate panel here yesterday. The results came from a survey funded by the National Constitution Center, a nonprofit organization that is urging Congress to help fund a museum in Philadelphia, the nation's first to be dedicated to educating the public about the Constitution.

"It's a big problem that more teens know where Bart Simpson lives [a fictitious Springfield] than where Abraham Lincoln lived [Springfield, Ill.]," said Sen. Arlen Specter, who presided over yesterday's hearing. "It's a problem with our school systems, but also with the cynicism about our government."

(For the benefit of the 79 percent of teen-agers who apparently don't know that Congress has 100 senators, Specter, a Republican, is one of two from Pennsylvania. Teens need no such help identifying Hanson, the music group known for its trio of young heartthrobs with flowing blond hair. Eighty-one percent know that the group is composed of three brothers.)

The survey, which was conducted last month by the Luntz Research Co. and polled 600 teen-agers nationwide on 28 topics, revealed that 64 percent of teens know "The Club" is a product that protects cars from being stolen. But just one in four know what rights are protected by the Fifth Amendment.

Suffrage vs. Spice

Only 54 percent know that women won the right to vote in this century. Yet 93 percent correctly said the Spice Girls is the group that celebrates "girl power."

Seventy-five percent can identify the city (Beverly Hills) with the ZIP code "90210." Just 26 percent know the city (Philadelphia) where the Constitution was written. Only 41 percent could name the three branches of government; yet 59 percent could name the Three Stooges.

"I'm not much of a fan of polls showing how stupid Americans are," said Richard R. Beeman, an 18th-century historian and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. "But it's really important to know how our government works."

Last year, the center commissioned its first survey, testing 1,000 adults on constitutional knowledge. In that poll, 91 percent said the Constitution is important to them and 84 percent said our government depends on informed citizens. But one in six adults said they thought the document established America as a Christian nation, and one in four could not name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment.

A search for relevancy

While that survey was somewhat troubling, center officials said, the results of the teen poll are piteous. "The Constitution is the most important document in the nation, and maybe even the world," said Edward G. Rendell, the mayor of Philadelphia and chairman of the center. "When you look at statistics like this, it's -- stunning."

Taking an optimistic approach, the center's staff pointed to a glimmer of hope in the results: Teen-agers are obviously capable of mastering a subject when they happen to be interested in it.

Rendell and others asserted that the usual way of teaching civics in America's schools -- simply throwing facts and dates at students -- has clearly failed. Their goal now, they said, is to make the Constitution more relevant to youths by teaching interactively, and by using contemporary issues, such as protection of free speech for World Wide Web users, to retain students' attention.

(Seventy-one percent of teens know that "www" are the three letters after "http" in Web addresses, but just 36 percent know that the first three words of the Constitution are "We the people.")

"We have to make education interactive and connect what they're learning to their lives," said Beeman, the Penn historian.

In quest of dollars

Rendell envisions interactive teaching as one role of the museum, a $130 million project set to open on Independence Mall in Philadelphia in 2002.

Rendell, who testified yesterday, is requesting $20 million of federal support this year. Specter's appropriations subcommittee has approved $10 million for the project; another panel has approved an additional $10 million.

The senator has encountered some criticism in Congress that the cash amounts to pork for Philadelphia, his hometown. Irritated by such complaints, Rendell likens his project to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which, he said, has raised awareness around the country about a single subject.

Gore no DiCaprio

At the hearing, Rendell studied the survey results -- displayed colorfully on an easel -- alongside Specter. "Actually, the vice president didn't do that bad," the mayor said.

Al Gore, identified as the vice president by 74 percent of teen-agers, finished behind Leonardo DiCaprio. Ninety percent know he is the male star of the blockbuster movie "Titanic."

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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