Press Releases | Historical Literacy

Top Colleges Flunk American History

No Improvement Despite Growing Public Alarm—Colleges requiring any history drop from 22% to 10%
September 16, 2002

WASHINGTON, DC—Despite growing public alarm about historical illiteracy and a Congressional Resolution calling for action, not a single one of America’s top 50 colleges and universities now requires the study of American history of its graduates, according to a study released today by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. And in a continuing decline, only 10% of these same colleges require any study of history at all, a drop from 22% just two years ago.

In February 2000, ACTA issued a Roper survey and report entitled Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century. The survey revealed that seniors from America’s elite colleges and universities were graduating with an alarming ignorance of their heritage and a profound historical illiteracy. Seniors could not identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address, or even the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution. Given high-school level questions, 81% of the seniors would have received a D or F. Despite this lack of knowledge, ACTA found that students could graduate from 100% of the top colleges without taking a single course in American history. At 78% of the institutions, students were not required to take any history at all.

Alarmed by these results, the U.S. Congress unanimously adopted a concurrent resolution in July 2000, calling on trustees, state administrators, and citizens across the country to address America’s historical illiteracy. The bipartisan resolution was introduced by Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Sen. Slade Gorton (R-WA), Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA). Prominent historians including David McCullough, Gordon Wood, and Oscar Handlin endorsed the effort.

Despite this outcry, ACTA’s 2002 study reveals that colleges and universities have utterly ignored the call for action. Not a single one of the top 50 national and liberal arts colleges as defined by U.S. News & World Report in 2002, requires a course in American history. And, only 10%— just five schools—require any history at all, a drop from 22% just two years ago. Although many institutions claim requirements in history, in fact, the requirement may often be satisfied by courses in other fields, including English, psychology, education and music. For example, at the University of California-Berkeley, “Alternative Sexual Identities and Communities” fulfills the American Cultures requirement. At Dartmouth, “Music of Southeast Asia” and “From Hand to Mouth: Writing, Eating, and the Construction of Gender” both meet the World Culture requirements. At Washington University in St. Louis, “Race and Ethnicity on American Television” is classified as a “Textual and Historical Studies” course. To rule out courses such as “The History of College Football” offered in a physical education department, the study defines a history course as a course taught in the history department.

“Our ability to survive as a nation depends upon our understanding the principles and values that the Founders established and that we all share as Americans,” said ACTA Executive Director Anne D. Neal. “This appalling ignorance of our history and heritage bodes ill for the future of a free republic.”

National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Bruce Cole agreed: “Today, it is all the more urgent that we study American institutions, culture, and history. Defending our democracy demands more than successful military campaigns. It also requires an understanding of the ideals, ideas and institutions that have shaped our country.”

ACTA is an educational nonprofit organization dedicated to academic freedom, quality and accountability.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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