I’ve been conducting a little informal survey for the past few weeks, and the results have surprised me. I’ve now asked more than a dozen Australian in their early 20s how many States are in the USA. With one exception (who guessed 51), I’ve been told there are 52, obvious as there are 52 stars on the flag — sometimes I’ll also hear “like there are 52 weeks in a year.”
Most will also think that the last two were added recently, but as to which two the answers diverge a little bit. Alaska and Hawaii are the most common choices, but I’ve had the odd Guam and Puerto Rico thrown in.
Some of those surveyed get a little bit defensive and ask how many Americans know the number of states in Australia*, and I quickly try to soothe them: it’s not the fact that they don’t know that fascinates me, it’s the consistency (or, if you like, precision) of their wrong answers.
To further my investigation, I think now I have to get in a school and read what the textbooks have to say about the States.
Also, for the record, ask any Brit in the same age group and the answer will come back instantly: “fifty” — invariably accompanied with a look that says duh.
* The number of states in Australia is a trickier question than it first appears. The clear choices are New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, Southern Australia, and Tasmania. Things get sticky when you try to classify Australian Capital Territory, the D.C.-like region landlocked in NSW, and the Northern Territory, which by dint of its “territory” classification does not seem to be a state.