Don’t know much about history

In yet another survey — this one on American history — U.S. college students demonstrate cluelessness.

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 Sacramento Bee’s Dan Weintraub notes students are weak on current events too.

Even with their country at war in Iraq, fewer than half of seniors, 45.2 percent, could identify the Baath party as the main source of Saddam Hussein’s political support. In fact, 12.2 percent believed that Saddam Hussein found his most reliable supporters in the Communist Party. Almost 5.7 percent chose Israel.

For some people, it’s always the Jews.

At Rhodes College, Colorado State University and Calvin College, students made the biggest gains from freshman to senior year; students did worse over time at Cornell, UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins. However, the civic literacy group didn’t reveal the actual scores: Perhaps Cornell frosh outscore Rhodes frosh but don’t improve on their base. (Update: Linda Seebach sent me the link to the relevant table: Cornell frosh do outscore Rhodes frosh but Rhodes seniors outscore Cornell seniors.)

Here’s a pop civic literacy quiz. It’s very easy.

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Comments

  1. 100% on the civic literacy quiz.

    But if you randomly stopped me on the street and said, “What battle ended the American Revolutionary War,” I’d probably not be able to come up with Yorktown. (However, I’d not have answered “Gettysburg” either).

    Was the test given multiple choice or fill in the blanks? I could PROBABLY choose Yorktown correctly from other choices (especially if they were things like Battle of the Bulge or Gettysburg), but to just pull it off the top of my head…it’s been too long.

    I’m not surprised about the current events one; I teach intro biology and am regularly met with blank stares when I ask the students to tell me what they know about stem cells.

  2. John Anderson says:

    55.4 percent could not recognize Yorktown – which must mean 44.6 did, so I suspect it was multiple-choice. Like Ricki, I would not come up with that off the top of my head. OTOH, by virtue of where I live, I can name the first of the 13 colonies to declare independence/war – yet was also the last to sign the Declaration.

  3. Wayne Martin says:

    Sadly, this failure of the public schools students to learn history is well known:

    Failure of Teaching History:
    http://radicalpedagogy.icaap.org/content/issue5_2/03_rees.html

    Requiring U.S. history weighed for colleges:
    http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/0802ushistory0802.html

    A Quiet Crisis in Educating Talented Students:
    http://www.ed.gov/pubs/DevTalent/part1.html

    History is passe:
    http://www.joannejacobs.com/mtarchives/015722.html

    Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?
    http://www.edexcellence.net/institute/publication/publication.cfm?id=317

    This is one of those areas where distance learning could very well provide students with high quality teaching, access to a vast array of multi-media teaching materials, and on-line test taking/evaluation at low cost to the schools.

  4. I call bullsh*t on this study. See here.

  5. 1)It was extremely irritating that, after I went to the trouble of downloading the study (requires reigstration), I found it didn’t include the actual questions asked. The reason given is that the research is ongoing: maybe they should have waited till it was complete to release that report, and included the appropriate details.

    2)As RWP points out, much of this is traditionally supposed to be taught in K-12 education: perhaps the study should be viewed as a measurement of the *combined* results of K-12 and college education.

    3)The tone of the report is far too hectoring.

  6. Indigo Warrior says:

    Better to learn math and science; at least these deal with objective reality. Yesterday I happened to look at some vintage 1970s school “history” workbooks from the dark days of “detente”, which meant a maudlin defense of Soviet imperialism. These were horribly disrespectful to the tens of millions of communist genocide victims. Imagine the fate of an educator writing a similar book about the Third Reich! Clear double standard here.

  7. Wayne Martin says:

    > Better to learn math and science; at least
    > these deal with objective reality.

    Interesting point .. keeping in mind that history is all too frequently written by the victor ..

    > These were horribly disrespectful to the
    > tens of millions of communist genocide victims.

    In what way?

    The Internet/WEB has made thousands of primary documents available to the public. While it’s time consuming to chase these things down, they are very useful to provide unfilted views of history.

    Google/Books, the University of Michigan and Cornell have a growing collection of historic books and journals on-line which open new dimensions on old times.

  8. Indigo Warrior says:

    > Better to learn math and science; at least
    > these deal with objective reality.

    Interesting point .. keeping in mind that history is all too frequently written by the victor ..

    History is mostly propaganda for one side or another. The relative goodness of theses sides is not in question.

    > These were horribly disrespectful to the
    > tens of millions of communist genocide victims.

    In what way?

    By denial. I was specifically referring to mid-1970s school history books rather than 1950-1970 / 1980-present ones. The Ukrainian Famine, Soviet collectivization in general, China’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot. Ironically, with the Cold War long over, history books now are looking at communism more objectively, and not sugar-coating its horror.

    As I stated before, there is a glaring double standard involving the Nazi Holocaust and the many communist holocausts. Denial of the former is considered extremely bad taste, and in some places (such as Germany) an actual crime. Had Yeltsin or Putin ever criminalized Ukrainian Famine Denial? No. I’m not saying that should have (remember freedom of expression), only that the matter be approached with some rationality and fairness.

    The Internet/WEB has made thousands of primary documents available to the public. While it’s time consuming to chase these things down, they are very useful to provide unfilted views of history.

    Very time consuming … which is why the real study of history is so difficult and unpopular, for both educator and educated. It’s easier to cram pre-digested factoids spun to the current fashion du jour. It would be nice for pre-secondary history teachers/mentors to make a class project out of primary-source research even for minor local events.

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