Students Know Less After 4 College Years
Harvard Gets D+ on Civics Quiz
BY ANNIE KARNI – Staff Reporter of the Sun
NY Sun, September 19, 2007
Students at many of the country’s most prestigious colleges and universities are graduating with less knowledge of American history, government, and economics than they had as incoming freshmen, with Harvard University seniors scoring a “D+” average on a 60-question multiple-choice exam about civic literacy.
According to a report released yesterday by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the average college senior at the 50 colleges and universities polled did not earn a passing grade.
“At the most expensive colleges, they actually graduate knowing less,” the executive director of the Jack Miller Center at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Michael Ratliff, said. “Colleges and universities are not directing students to the courses that would educate them. We want to know whether after getting $300 billion to do their work, universities are actually educating their students.”
At universities such as Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Berkeley, seniors scored lower on the test than freshmen, living proof of the broadening relevancy of the old Harvard adage that the university is a storehouse of knowledge because “the freshmen bring so much and the seniors take away so little.”
The average foreign student studying in an American college learned nothing about the country’s history and its civic institutions, according to the study.
The low scores indicate a looming crisis in American citizenship, officials at the institute said yesterday, as students who increased their knowledge of American history in college were more likely to register to vote and to participate in civic activities as adults.
The study, titled “Failing Our Students, Failing America,” was conducted by researchers at the department of public policy at the University of Connecticut. The exam was distributed to 14,000 college seniors at 50 institutions of higher education across the country. The researchers hand-picked 25 “elite” schools, and randomly selected 25 schools from all four-year American colleges and universities to poll. The multiple-choice questions were written by specialists in each field.
A professor of American history at Columbia University, Eric Foner, said that a multiple-choice exam testing factual knowledge of history could exaggerate student ignorance of American history.
“The study of history has changed enormously,” Mr. Foner said. “It’s become much more broad and diverse. The study of facts about particular battles has diminished, but maybe students are in a better position to answer questions about the abolition of slavery.”
Some of the questions in the exam were strictly factual, asking students to identify which battle ended Revolutionary War, or the dates when President Lincoln was in office. Other questions tested their understanding of different forms of government, or of the basic theories of philosophers such as Plato.
“History has a pragmatic value,” Mr. Foner said. “You are acquiring skills that are desired by employers — an ability to write, analyze material, and produce your own point of view.”
The chairman of the history department at Princeton University, Jeremy Adelman, said that providing students with a foundation in American history and governance should not be the sole mission of any institution of higher education.
“You have to ask what is the social function of the university?” Mr. Adelman said. “If you’re in chemical engineering, why study history? Should we require students to study history? I don’t think if you polled the history department faculty there would be unanimity on the question.” Students at Princeton are required to take one history class, he said. The course does not have to be in American history.
Less than half of the students who participated identified the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” as a line from the Declaration of Independence. Many of them identified its source as “The Communist Manifesto,” or said that it was an inscription on the Statue of Liberty.
Cornell and Princeton spokeswomen said the institutions would not comment on the report. A Harvard spokesman did not return a call for comment. A spokeswoman for Yale pointed out that history is the most popular major at the college, and that last year, 3,586 students out of about 5,200 students registered to take a history course.
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute was founded in 1953 with William Buckley Jr. as its president. Its mission is to cultivate the values of democracy and of a free society among American college students. This is the third year that the institute has issued the report on civic knowledge among American college students.
Source: NY Sun, September 19, 2007 Edition > Section: New York