They come in threes: Stooges, branches of government

Is it true that a survey shows more teenagers know the names of the Three Stooges than know the three branches of government?

Justice Sandra O'Connor, by Matt York, AP

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor warned the National Governors Association that lack of education — ignorance — threatens justice in the U.S. According to the Detroit News:

O’Connor said growing disrespect for judges and erosion of independence of the judicial branch are partly due to students not learning much about American government in school.

“The key to maintaining our system lies in the education of our citizens,” O’Connor told the 19 governors who stuck around for the final day of the summer meeting.

She added in her 12-minute speech that surveys have shown fewer teenagers can identify the three branches of government than can name the Three Stooges.

“Now I enjoy Larry, Moe and Curly, but” it’s distressing that students don’t know the most basic concepts of government, said O’Connor, a Reagan appointee who retired last year after 24 years on the high court.

But, the Three Stooges? That’s almost too perfect a quote. It seems even more fantastic when one considers that the Three Stooges are not broadcast nearly so much as they were in the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s. Where did O’Connor get that factoid?

  • Photo: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor by Matt York, Associated Press

The Detroit News cited no sources. If the National Governors Association (NGA) posts O’Connor’s remarks, they are not up yet (but see the photo below). A search on “Three Stooges” and “three branches” quickly points to the National Constitution Center (NCC) and a press release on their 1998 survey.

Three Stooges salute flag, July 4, 2007 from

“These results are alarming for everyone who cares about the future of our democracy,” said Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, Chairman of NCC [in 2007, Rendell is governor of Pennsylvania]. “The Constitution doesn’t work by itself. It depends on active, informed citizens. And that’s who these kids are: our future citizens.”

“But we shouldn’t view these poll results as an indictment of our teens,” Rendell cautioned. Rendell pointed to survey analysis showing that teens whose parents discussed politics and current events with them regularly scored better than their peers. “This poll tells us that we all must work to better understand our Constitution. Because kids learn most of all from the example set by adults around them.”

“It is no surprise to us that teens know more about pop culture than the Constitution but it is shocking that the gap is so wide,” said Joseph Torsella, the NCC’s President. “Ironically, it is the very essence of the Constitution that enables such a vibrant pop culture in this country. We need to do a better job helping our kids to understand that without their Constitution, most of their pop culture icons would not exist and the open and free communication they live with every day wouldn’t flourish.”

“This poll also shows us how to communicate this important knowledge to kids,” Torsella added. “The results tells us that when teens feel something is interesting and relevant to their lives, they are open and ready to learn. The stories behind the Constitution are interesting and relevant; its our job to present them that way. If teens can understand the “girl power” mantra of the Spice Girls, then they can understand the history – and the relevancy – of the women’s suffragette movement.”

The survey offers a quick “temperature taking” quiz for civics, government and U.S. history classes, although I wonder whether it is not stuck just a bit in 1998. Is “Beverly Hills, 90210” still well enough known by kids that they’d recognize that zipcode? The survey listed the Vice President Al Gore — a teacher would need to update that to Dick Cheney. Will students still know the singing brothers in Hanson?

Otherwise, the questions could pose good Bell Ringers or class warmup exercises on the Constitution and various aspects of government and U.S. history.

Students might also want to make their own quizzes, to test their fellow students.

Here are the questions as originally posed by the NCC poll:

Key findings of the survey include:

Paired Questions, first question bold (answers in parentheses) % Correct

[updated answers in brackets]

In what city was the US Constitution written? (Philadelphia) 25.5%

In what city would you find the zip code 90210? (Beverly Hills) 75.2%

Name the Vice President of the United States. (Al Gore) 73.8% [Dick Cheney]

Name the male star of the movie Titanic. (Leonardo DiCaprio) 89.7%

How many US Senators are there? (100) 21.2%

How many brothers are there in the musical group “Hanson”? (3) 81.2%

What are the first three words of the Constitution? (“We the People”) 35.5%

What are the first three letters after “http”of almost every website address? (www) 71.2%

What does the fifth amendment protect? (Double Jeopardy/Self-Incrimination/Right to a Grand Jury/Due Process/Compensation for Private Property Taken for Public Use) 25.0%

What does the device “The Club” protect? (car) 63.7%

In which century did American women obtain the right to vote? (20th) 54.3%

Which musical band celebrates “girl power”? (Spice Girls) 92.8%

Name the three branches of the federal government. (Executive, Judicial, Legislative) 41.2% [Still three, despite claims to the U.S. Senate by the Vice President]

Name as many of the Three Stooges as you can. Curly/Larry/Moe/Shemp/Curly Joe) 59.2%

How old do you have to be to vote in a national election for president? (18) 90.8%

How old do you have to be to see a rated R movie in a theater without a parent or guardian? (17) 65.3%

Who is the Chief Justice of the United States? (William Rehnquist) 2.2% [John Roberts in 2007]

Who played the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on Television? (Will Smith) 94.7%

What are the first ten amendments to the Constitution known as? (Bill of Rights) 44.8%

What comedian/talkshow host is known for his nightly “Top Ten List”? (David Letterman) 53.0%

Who is currently the Speaker of the House in the United States Congress? (Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia) 32.7% [Nancy Pelosi, D-California, in 2007]

Who stars as the father of the house in TV’s Home Improvement? (Tim Allen) 89.8%

Who is considered the father of the US Constitution? (James Madison) 1.8%

Who is considered the father of the computer company Microsoft? (Bill Gates) 58.3%

What landmark Supreme Court case found that separate but equal treatment for blacks and whites in public schools was unconstitutional? (Brown v. Board of Education) 9.2%

What famous football player was found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife in 1995? (OJ Simpson) 87.5%

What’s the name of the town where Abraham Lincoln lived for most of his adult life and which he represented when in Congress? (Springfield) 12.2%

What’s the name of the town where Bart Simpson lives? (Springfield) 74.3%

Former Justice Sandra O'Connor addressing the National Governors Association, 7-24-2007

Tip of the old scrub brush to these women.

4 Responses to They come in threes: Stooges, branches of government

  1. […] knows about things, usually bad, coming in threes. Branches of government, stooges, and of course, celebrity deaths. Add Russia-specific exchange-traded funds to that list. It may […]


  2. claire says:

    why r the 3 stooges paired


  3. Right. Executive, Curly, and Moe. Isn’t that official administration policy?


  4. […] House Link to Article supreme court They come in threes: Stooges, branches of government » Posted at […]


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