“Don’t Know Much [Anything] About History”

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
    grading scale.
  • 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. 

6 comments… add one
  • Dan Dec 17, 2006 @ 17:35

    Chris — On one level I agree with your argument that students are physiologically better disposed to grasping the kinds of subtleties that are part of “good” history by the time they get to college, but there are two things that render this fact relatively moot.

    First, as Kevin eludes to, there is not really anything intrinsically useful in being able to successfully discern between single-word answers on a multiple choice test in history. I would argue that someone with a vague grasp of what century in which Jamestown was founded that yet had a strong grasp of the lessons to be gained from studying that colony is actually better educated in a civic sense than someone who can rattle off trivia with abandon, but couldn’t explain with confidence the bigger social, political, and, well, historical picture (as a resident of Gettysburg, I have run into lots of the latter over the course of my life). The example of the history professors at Ivy League institutions, when flipped on its head, lends validity to this argument: they may know very little historical ‘trivia,’ but that does not mean they don’t understand history in a meaningful sense. Methodologically, then, this survey was doomed from the start.

    Second, I think it is a bit glib to dismiss high school students’ ability to grasp what is most meaningful in history. I have taught history, philosophy, and politics to high school aged students of wide-ranging abilities. Hormonal ‘static’ aside, I have become convinced that any student can learn anything as long as 1) the material is presented in an accessible medium and 2) the student is treated like he or she is able to understand the material at hand. This is not say that this can be easy. Obviously, one can’t assign Foner’s Reconstruction to a 10th grade history class, but with a great deal of creativity and hard work, these students can understand its basic theoretical assertions. Teaching and learning are truly reflexively related. If a student is taught by a teacher that is passionate and genuinely tries very, very hard, more often than not that enthusiasm will be re-paid, even by the less “capable” students in the class.

    A bigger problem, to me, is that we seem to think its perfectly fine to wait until college for Americans to receive the fundamentals of civic education. If public education was taken more seriously in K-12 years, this crisis at the college level would have a greater chance of being nipped in the bud.

  • chris Dec 17, 2006 @ 1:03

    Kevin – I hear you… What I meant about college age students is the maturity level. I remember nothing from high school history classes and I think one of the issues is metacognition… how young people learn. Note: not the AP kids you and others have in the classroom, but the average high school kid is gonna have a hard time with the elusiveness of history. By college psychology seems to show that the brain is settling down from the emotional issues during that maturation… It was college and my first history class there that spawned my interest and a lot of my fellow teachers echoed the same thing. It’s college when kids should start appreciating history… not losing it…

    I don’t know what the answer is and it may be a lot to do about “nothing…” but I leave it open for debate…


  • Kevin Levin Dec 16, 2006 @ 18:12

    Richard, — Excellent point. If you are suggesting that this report may be a lot about nothing I tend to agree with you. And remember I teach American history on the high school level. I’m not sure that questions about the Federalist papers should be used as a measure for anything. In the end I’m not sure that there is any crisis to speak of.

    And even if the statistics are accurate we still have to ask about their significance. In other words, we still have to ask the question of whether it matters whether Americans are historically illiterate. I know that may sound strange coming from a history teacher, but I am not for a second willing to ASSUME that there is some kind of intrinsic good in knowing about the past. We need to know why we believe it.

  • Richard Dec 16, 2006 @ 16:43

    Yes, I suppose there are things in the report that can be discouraging. But, as you point out, the results are not all that different from earlier times. So it begs the question that if this is a coming crisis in citizenship just how long does a crisis have to be “coming” before it is here? Also, there is a clear logical fallicy in part of the report that you present. In the intro you indicate that this test was taken by college students from Freshmen to Senior year. It is therefore a non sequitur to say that the question on the Federalist Papers is “illustrating negative learning while at college.”
    Such a result could only be surmised if there were a comparison of the same students across individual college careers.
    Makes me wonder where else erroneous conclusions may have been drawn.

  • Kevin Levin Dec 16, 2006 @ 16:21

    Chris, — You may indeed be correct in characterizing the study’s findings as “discouraging” though I am not quite sure what you mean by “more mature, both mentally and emotionally.”

    I honestly don’t know how I feel about such tests. As for my own case I probably finished college not knowing that much more about American history than when I started. There is clearly an anti-intellectual streak in this country and my guess is that it is pervasive through different groups. It is somewhat humorous that as a nation we are presently committed to bringing democracy to the Middle East (whatever that means) when only half of Americans vote. I assume this is roughly the half that knows the basics of American history/civics.

    In reference to your comment about Civil War soldiers’ mentioning the Constitution, founding fathers, etc, my guess is that they are just as vacuous compared to the way most Americans today reference these ideas. I am not suggesting that they didn’t believe what they were saying just that it is not evidence that 19th century Americans were better informed. Do you think most people who reference the Constitution have actually read it? I don’t.

  • chris Dec 16, 2006 @ 15:36

    Kevin, you’re absolutely right that there has probably never been a “golden” age for young people (High School) and their knowledge of American history. (Your post makes me think of Wineburg’s book, “Historical Thinking and other Unnatural Acts.”) Though I do wonder about the early 19th Century simply because of the chronological relationship with history. The letters and diaries from Civil War soldiers I have read often mention the founding fathers, the constitution (in some regard), and the founding principles of the country.

    However, this study’s findings are frankly very discouraging. College students should be more mature, both mentally and emotionally. And therefore, there is no (apparent) reason for them not to come out of college, at the very least, armed with those basic U.S. history facts cited.


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