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Colleges Fail to Teach Students About America’s History, Says Report

Almost half of 14,000 incoming college freshmen surveyed across 50 schools in the country cannot recognize key passages from the Bill of Rights. The percentage increases only slightly when the question is posed to graduating college seniors, according to a study released Tuesday.

At 16 of those schools, seniors actually scored lower on the tests than the freshmen. And ironically, many of those schools can be found among the Ivy Leagues.

The study, titled “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions,” was commissioned by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy. The average senior correctly answered just over 53 percent of the questions, only 1.5 points higher than the average freshman.

College freshmen and seniors at the 50 institutions were asked to take a 60-question multiple-choice test about America’s history, its government and the market economy, among other things. Rankings reflect the percent difference in pass rates between the two groups. Nearly 60 percent of freshmen surveyed knew approximately when the Civil War occurred; and nearly 80 percent were familiar with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling and the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But seniors surveyed at the same institutions showed little gains in civic knowledge after their college experience. Only 63 percent knew the timing of the Civil War, 82 percent knew about Brown v. Board of Education and 83 percent knew about King.

“These results are profoundly disturbing,” says Lt. Gen. Josiah Bunting III, chairman of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board. “It shows students don’t learn what colleges don’t teach.”

According to the test, seniors at some of the nation’s most respected institutions graduate knowing less about American history than they did when they arrived on campus. The bottom five universities in the study were, from the bottom: Johns Hopkins University, the University of California, Berkeley, Cornell University, Brown University and Duke University. Georgetown and Yale Universities didn’t fare much better, placing 43rd and 44th, respectively.

Meanwhile, Rhodes College, a liberal arts school in Memphis, Tenn., was ranked first in the areas of history, politics, world affairs and the market economy. The University of New Mexico, which has a student population that is about half Hispanic, was ranked seventh. Two historically Black colleges — Florida Memorial University and North Carolina Central University — ranked ninth and thirteenth, respectively.

However, the mean scores for incoming freshmen at the prestigious universities were generally higher than the mean scores for their counterparts at other institutions, suggesting that they had a more solid grasp of American history before coming to college.

Greater civic learning goes hand-in-hand with more active citizenship, such as voting and campaigning, according to the study. Bunting says 90 percent of seniors at Colorado State University had voted at least once in federal elections or state elections.

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, also a member of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board, says the report is important to stimulate action.

“American institutions are selling their students short. Nothing less than our nation’s future is at risk,” Hickok says, adding that the report doesn’t help the current U.S. image in the court of world opinion. “It unfortunately adds to the stereotype of the ‘ignorant American,’” he says.

The report recommends getting colleges to assess their own effectiveness in teaching and improving the quality of required courses. It also says colleges should perhaps be held accountable for their students’ performance on the test.

“There is too much brouhaha over the rankings by U.S. News & World Report,” Hickok says. “Students should find out where the actual learning is taking place.”

Dr. Gary Scott, a senior research fellow in the Civic Literacy Program, says students were asked other contextual questions, including how often they discussed public affairs with their friends and family outside of the classroom. While 73 percent of seniors’ families at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa., discussed current events or history on a weekly or daily basis, only half of all seniors’ families at the University of California-Berkley and Johns Hopkins engaged in such discussions.

“We need to understand Jefferson to understand Lincoln or Martin Luther King,” says Rear Admiral Michael Ratliff, ISI’s senior vice president.

A copy of the report is available at

By Shilpa Banerji

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