By Zoey Katzive
“Honestly, I’m really checked out of American politics,” said one first-year who responded to BOP’s April 2023 poll.
If you are an avid follower of American politics like myself, you could probably answer the question “Who is the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court?” without missing a beat. You would also be surprised to learn that 70% of Brown undergraduates surveyed in the Brown Opinion Project’s April 2023 poll were unable to correctly identify John Roberts as the present incumbent.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, social science concentrators were more likely to answer the question correctly than any other group: 37% of them were able to answer correctly. This may be because this group includes Brown’s international and public affairs and political science concentrations.
Humanities concentrators had the second-most success, with 31% answering correctly. Physical science concentrators followed with a 28% success rate, while only 20% of life science concentrators were able to identify Roberts. While correct response rates varied significantly across groups of concentrations, the majority of students in each group were unable to answer the question.
Members of the class of 2024 were most likely to answer the question correctly at a 36% success rate, followed by the class of 2023 (32%), the class of 2025 (29%) and finally the class of 2026 (23%).
Those that support a federal ban of the social media app TikTok were also much more likely to answer correctly, with 46% answering correctly compared to just 25% of those who oppose the ban.
Correct response rates varied dramatically by gender, with 42% of men answering correctly compared to just 20% of women. This may be due to the fact that male respondents were more confident: almost two times more women than men did not write in a response to this question.
One member of the class of 2026 said that they consider themself to be politically engaged but could not name anybody on the Supreme Court. “A lot of people know a lot about what goes on in the world, but don’t necessarily know who’s in charge of it,” they said. “Like, I have no idea who this ‘Chief Executive Person’ is.”
Most undergraduates interviewed were more optimistic about the number of their peers that would answer the question correctly than what is evidenced by the poll results. A member of the class of 2024.5 said that they expected around 50% of Brown undergraduates to come up with John Roberts. A member of the class of 2026 said that she figured less than half of Brown students would answer correctly, but still thought that more Brown students would answer correctly compared to other potential poll sample groups.
I asked several students which members of the Supreme Court they could name, and while several answered “none,” the most common responses were Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh. No students interviewed were able to recall Justices Neil Gorsuch or Amy Coney Barrett, and only one mentioned the newest addition to the Supreme Court, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. One student confidently responded, “Scalia,” referring to former Justice Antonin Scalia, who has been dead for seven years.
There seemed to be a general sentiment amongst respondents that American politics have become complicated and depressing, which may be causing young people to avoid reading the news or keeping up with current events.
“Honestly, I’m really checked out of American politics,” said one member of the class of 2026. “I’m really embarrassed.”
Note: All quoted poll-takers remain anonymous to maintain the integrity of Brown Opinion Project surveys. Brown Opinion Project conducted its April 2023 poll April 11th-April 13th, collecting 704 total responses from Brown undergraduate students. The margin of error is 3.71% with 95% confidence.