- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2000

It's Washington's Birthday, but how much do today's college seniors know about George?

Not much, concludes a survey of students at the nation's top 55 colleges and universities that paints a most unstatesmanlike portrait of the "profound historical illiteracy" that abounds on many campuses.

While nearly 100 percent of the soon-to-graduate students can identify cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead and the rapper Snoop Dogg, only 34 percent knew that George Washington was the American general at the battle of Yorktown, the culminating battle of the American Revolution.

A majority of the college seniors who were asked questions from a high school achievement test also could not identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address or even basic principles of the U.S. Constitution.

Worse still, the study found, students at 100 percent of these elite universities where tuition can run as high as $30,000 per year can go through four years of classes and graduate without taking a single American history class.

"History is a discipline in decline," said Oscar Handlin, a professor emeritus at Harvard University. "There is a profound ignorance not only among students but among their teachers as well.

The survey, "Losing America's Memory, Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century," was conducted in December 1999 at 55 colleges ranked by U.S. News and World Report as top research universities and liberal arts colleges. It was compiled by the Roper Organization at the University of Connecticut's Center for Survey Research and Analysis and released by the Washington-based Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).

The findings do not surprise James C. Rees, director of George Washington's Mount Vernon.

"This report explains why visitors to Mount Vernon seem to know next to nothing about the real George Washington, and why they appear to be almost starved for American history," Mr. Rees said. "Our own studies have determined that history is being shortchanged in elementary schools, where even our greatest hero, George Washington, receives so little time and attention. Yet why should we be surprised, if the college graduates teaching these children have learned so little history themselves?"

Historian David McCullough also expressed concern over the study, which discovered that at 78 percent of the schools, students were not required to take any history courses at all. "The place given to history in our schools is a disgrace, and the dreadful truth is very few of those responsible for curriculum seem to care, even at the highest level of education," said Mr. McCullough, a Pulitzer-Prize winner for a biography of President Harry Truman.

Sean Lay, a professor of history at Coker College in Hartsville, S.C., used to give a historical literacy quiz each semester to gauge his new students' knowledge. Nearly all of them had no idea what decade the Constitution was written in, says Mr. Lay, who has since given the quiz up.

"I just assume the students are coming in, as John Locke put it, 'tabula rasa,' " Mr. Lay said, invoking the Latin phrase for "blank slate."

"Given a choice, most students avoid history courses, which require much more reading, writing and thinking than other liberal arts and social science fare," he said.

Winfield J.C. Myers, an editor at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Wilmington, Del., says the disinterest in the teaching of history on campuses reflects the "intellectual fracturing" within the history profession.

"Americans rightly see themselves as part of Western culture, but many professors today maintain the posture that privileging American history is ethnocentric or Eurocentric, and the study of that field has declined," said Mr. Myers, who has taught history at the University of Michigan and the University of Georgia.

"It's a strange form of self-immolation: Many U.S. historians are afraid to speak out against the anti-Western ethos that reigns on so many campuses lest they be labeled 'conservative' or 'reactionary,' ' he said. "Yet the importance of their own profession has suffered from their intellectual cowardice. They're burying themselves."

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