It’s a frequent Boomer lament: “Kids these days don’t know much about ____ “ (fill in the blank: geography, culture, science, art, history). In bad news for Millennials, a new study suggests that those annoying Boomers might be right.
Kent State University professors John Dunlosky and Katherine Rawson compared the general knowledge of 671 college students in 2012 versus a cohort tested by Thomas Nelson and Louis Narens back in 1980. By using Nelson and Narens’ same 300 questions, Dunlosky and Rawson were interested in establishing new norms for general knowledge that could be used by other researchers (e.g., those studying memory loss). For example, it’s perfectly logical that most college students today don’t have a clue about era-specific pop culture trivia, such as the identity of the cartoon character Popeye or Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto.
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However, along the way to new normative nirvana, Dunlosky and Rawson also discovered that the current crop of college students failed to grasp perennial and essential facts of geography, history, science, math, and the arts. For instance, they found that less than 5% of current students knew that Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World; Marie Curie discovered radium; Euclid is the father of geometry; Mozart wrote Don Giovanni; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes tales; Monticello is the name of Thomas Jefferson’s primary plantation and where our third President is buried; and that Alfred Nobel (namesake of the Nobel Peace Prize) invented dynamite.
It gets worse. In 1980, the fact that Paris is the capital of France was ranked 6th in terms of questions answered correctly. By 2012, this fact had dropped to 23rd place among questions answered correctly. Equally comforting, 30% of students in 2012 thought that Baghdad (capital of Iraq) was the capital of Afghanistan (whose capital is Kabul). 6% thought that Nairobi (capital of Kenya) was the capital of Africa (a continent). Moreover, 21% thought that Budapest (capital of Hungary) was the capital of India (whose capital is New Delhi). And the kicker: 12% thought that Mount Everest was in the Appalachians.
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If you are dismayed by Millennials’ grasp of basic geography, their grasp of basic history will not make your heart sing either. By 2012, knowledge that Lieutenant Colonel George Custer lost the Battle of Little Bighorn fell from 58th to 79th place. In 1980, the identity of the Egyptian matriarch, Cleopatra, was the 32nd most known fact. In 2012, it had dropped to 54th. Time for a gaudy, overpriced Hollywood remake?
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On the upside, Dunlosky and Rawson discovered that far more college students today knew the following vital pop cultural trivia than did their peers back in 1980:
That Bruce Wayne’s (a.k.a. Batman’s) butler is named Alfred rose from 137th to 101st in rank of questions answered correctly; that Marlboro was the first cigarette with a flip-top box is twice as known today as it was in 1980; and that a short pleated skirt worn by Scottish men is called a “kilt” danced up to 25th in 2012 from 79th in 1980.
You just gotta love those ironic Millenials, with their kilts and Marlboros, memorizing every aspect of The Dark Knight Rises.
All gentle teasing aside, are you disturbed by the precipitious decline in core general knowledge? Then try your hand at the the following ten questions (answers provided below). If it’s any comfort, not one of the 671 college students tested by Dunlosky and Rawson answered any of these questions correctly.
- What is the highest mountain in South America?
- Was was the name of the largest Confederate military prison during the Civil War?
- What is the last name of the author of The Brothers Karamazov?
- What is the last name of the first person to run a mile in under four minutes?
- What is the name of the mountain range that separates Europe from Asia?
- What was the last name of the U-2 spy plane pilot who was shot down over Russia in 1960?
- What is the last name of the person who allegedly said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”?
- What was the last name of the captain of the British ship “Bounty” when the mutiny occurred?
- What is the last name of the Cuban leader whom Fidel Castro overthrew?
- What is the last name of the man most responsible for photographing the U.S. Civil War?
Answers: Aconcagua, Andersonville, Dostoevsky, Bannister, Ural, Powers, Hale, Bligh, Batista, Brady.
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle