The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently released its report on the state of history/civics education in American colleges. The report titled "The Coming Crisis In Citizenship" presents a bleak picture of students attending a broad range of colleges and universities. The study was done by the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy and involved 14,000 randomly selected college freshman and seniors at 60 different colleges and universities. The students were given 60 multiple choice questions which covered American history, government, America and the world, and the market economy. Overall findings include the following:
- Seniors scored just 1.5 percent higher on average than freshmen.
- If the survey were administered as an exam in a college course, seniors
would fail with an overall average score of 53.2 percent, or F on a traditional
- Though a university education can cost upwards of $200,000, and college
students on average leave campus $19,300 in debt, they are no better off than
when they arrived in terms of acquiring the knowledge necessary for informed
engagement in a democratic republic and global economy.
I was also interested to find that "prestige" makes no difference; students attending Ivy League school did just as poorly as those attending lower profile institutions. The report continues:
Responses from college seniors to a selection of individual questions display
how little they actually know about basic historical facts, ideas, and concepts
germane to meaningful participation in American civic life.
- Seniors lack basic knowledge of America’s history. More than half, 53.4
percent, could not identify the correct century when the first American colony
was established at Jamestown. And 55.4 percent could not recognize Yorktown as
the battle that brought the American Revolution to an end (28 percent even
thought the Civil War battle at Gettysburg the correct answer).
- College seniors are also ignorant of America’s founding documents. Fewer
than half, 47.9 percent, recognized that the line "We hold these truths to be
self-evident, that all men are created equal," is from the Declaration of
Independence. And an overwhelming majority, 72.8 percent, could not correctly
identify the source of the idea of "a wall of separation" between church and
- More than half of college seniors did not know that the Bill of Rights
explicitly prohibits the establishment of an official religion for the United
- Nearly half of all college seniors, 49.4 percent, did not know that The
Federalist Papers—foundational texts of America’s constitutional order—were
written in support of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Seniors
actually scored lower than freshmen on this question by 5.7 percentage points,
illustrating negative learning while at college.
- More than 75 percent of college seniors could not identify that the purpose
of the Monroe Doctrine was to prevent foreign expansion in the Western
- 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
I won’t bore you with the report’s recommendations, but here they are if interested. So what are we to do about all of this? Well, the short answer is that I have no idea. Actually, we’ve heard it all before. Now before you work yourself into a frenzy keep in mind that there has never been a golden age – at least not in the 20th century – when it could be argued that America’s youth was historically literate. In 1917, 1,500 Texas teens performed just as poorly and tests conducted elsewhere in 1943, 1976, 1987, and 1994 resulted in similar scores. Part of the problem perhaps can be traced to the fact that 80% of history teachers currently in the classroom did not study the subject in college. I have no teacher training whatsoever and I am willing to admit that my skills as a teacher would be improved if I had more of a background in this area; however, I love the subject and I can get my students excited about studying the past. I don’t see how you can do that without loving the experience of doing history regardless of how many teacher education classes you have under your belt.
One more thought regarding this study. I once read that even professional historians do poorly on these tests. A group of historians from Stanford, Berkeley, and Harvard took a standardized and did worse than a group of AP History students. Perhaps this is the result of very narrow research interests. In the end I am not too concerned about these results. They are nothing new and if I am reading the results correctly somewhere around 50% of college students do know something about American history.