- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2008

Today is Presidents Day, so it’s an appropriate time to see who has a good handle on national history or government. If you think, however, the nation’s college students have the most knowledge on the subjects, think again.

College freshmen earned an average grade of F, or just 53.7 percent, when asked a series of questions about U.S. presidents and key historical events from their times in office. After four years of college, their knowledge didn’t improve much.

College seniors got just 55.4 percent on the 60-question quiz given to 14,000 students at 50 colleges and universities across the country as part of a study designed to test their knowledge of America’s history, government, international relations and market economy.

“In this election, we are focusing on the youth vote, and it’s great that more kids are coming out to vote. But we worry that it’s become a kind of cult of personality,” says Richard Brake, director of the Lehrman American Studies Center at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Wilmington, Del., which commissioned the civic learning study, conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy.

“If these kids don’t know what has happened in the past, our history, then we fear they are going to be fodder for sweeping rhetoric,” said Mr. Brake, a former professor who taught American history and government for seven years.

The study, “Failing Our Students, Failing America,” was the second of its kind from ISI. It was first completed in 2005 and then repeated in the fall of 2006. It surveyed students at elite institutions as well as small and public schools, asking questions about such things as the Constitution, the Civil War, the New Deal and the Cuban missile crisis.

It found that Harvard University seniors did best, with a grade of just 69.6 percent — a D-plus. In general, the higher a college ranked on the widely publicized U.S. News & World Report rankings, the lower it ranked on civic learning. At schools such as Cornell, Duke, Yale and Princeton, all ranked in the magazine’s top 12, seniors actually did worse than freshman.

Why should anyone care? Because of the global diplomatic climate, nation’s future remains at stake, Mr. Brake argues.

“A clear trend from these results is that American undergraduates know very little about the crucial moments and competing visions of American foreign policy,” he said. “That is deeply troubling, especially for a nation currently at war and struggling to determine its proper role on the world stage.”

Winfield Myers, a former history professor who co-founded the nonprofit Democracy Project, a foundation designed to improve the nation’s civic responsibility and understanding, blames the problem of civic understanding on the way teachers are educated in colleges of education.

“Rather than being taught the meat of a discipline, be it history or political science, they are taught methodologies of how to teach,” said Mr. Myers, who now leads Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

College curriculums also have broadened, even at small schools, and students are no longer required to take a prescribed set of foundational or core courses, leaving many to graduate with few courses related to government and history, Mr. Brake said.

“What we would really want is for a university to have a notion of itself and a confidence to say ‘We are the adults here,’ and there are certain things that you have to take to be an adult in our society,” he said. “We should also try to improve the teaching of American history and government.”

To try the American Civic Literacy Test, click here.

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