Don’t Know Much About History
Pete DuPont is shocked–shocked!–that American college students have a poor knowledge of American history.
Among college seniors, less than half–47.9%–correctly concluded that “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” was from the Declaration of Independence. More than half did not know that the Bill of Rights prohibits the governmental establishment of an official religion, and “55.4 percent could not recognize Yorktown as the battle that brought the American Revolution to an end” (more than one quarter believing that it was the Civil War battle of Gettysburg that had ended the Revolution).
The questions about more recent matters produced more accurate answers. More than 80% of students could identify Franklin D. Roosevelt’s programs as the New Deal, 79% knew that Brown v. Board of Education ordered an end to racial segregation, and 69% were aware that GDP was the best measure of output of our economy.
Like Steven Taylor, I am not surprised by this (I taught college political science for several years) nor am I particularly concerned. As he notes, much of this is essentially trivia. My recollection of the battles of the War for Independence (it wasn’t a revolution, dang it!) and the Civil War is fuzzy at best, although I can differentiate Gettysburg from Yorktown. Frankly, what I do know about those battles is practically useless.
This, too, is not all that surprising:
[There] were 16 schools that showed “negative learning”–that is, seniors scored lower than freshmen. Cornell, UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins were the worst three, their seniors scoring between 3.3 and 7.3 percentage points worse than their freshmen. And on the negative list were some other very prestigious universities: Williams, Georgetown, Yale, Duke and Brown.
Most students aren’t history majors. The core curriculum courses, including history, tend to be taken freshman year. So, one would expect freshmen to know more than seniors. This is especially true given that many schools allow students to take two semesters of World History or European History rather than American History. That means that the seniors are further away from high school history courses than the freshmen.
More to the point, however, DuPont’s criticism misses the central premise of American higher education. Unlike most educational systems, which emphasize rote learning, ours places a premium on higher order thinking.
For example: Is it really an established fact that GDP is “the best measure of output of our economy”? I’m not an economist but my understanding has long been that the choice of proxies for productivity involved trade-offs and different measures were utilized depending on exactly what one was trying to capture. Regardless, however, this is also trivia in the sense that only a tiny fraction of the 69% could likely tell you the difference between GDP and GNP, let alone how either is calculated. The Why’s are much more important than the What’s in these cases.
I don’t much care whether students can tell me the names of battles or identify which document contains a particular phrase. What’s important is to understand the significance of the War for Independence, the Civil War, economic variables, the civil rights movement, and so forth. We’re not doing as well at this, either, as I’d like. But we’re ahead of most other countries in doing this well for a broad spectrum of society.