ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Losing America’s Memory Executive Summary

February 2000

Who are we? What is our past? Upon what principles was American democracy founded? And how can we sustain them?—These are the questions that have inspired, motivated, perplexed since the beginning. And they are questions which still elude our full understanding. Yet they underscore a belief that a shared understanding, a shared knowledge, of the nation’s past unifies a people and ensures a common civic identity. Indeed, the American system is uniquely premised on the need for an educated citizenry. Embarking on the experiment of a democratic republic, the Founders viewed public education as central to the ability to sustain a participatory form of government. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” Thomas Jefferson said, “it expects what never was and never will be.”

But the importance of a shared memory appears to have lost its foothold in American higher education. As we move forward into the 21st century, our future leaders are graduating with an alarming ignorance of their heritage — a kind of collective amnesia — and a profound historical illiteracy which bodes ill for the future of the republic.

There is a widespread, though unspoken, assumption that, if not all citizens, at least college graduates—certainly those from the elite institutions—have a basic understanding of this country’s history and founding principles. Colleges themselves rarely, if ever, test this assumption. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) decided to do so. What do seniors at the nation’s best colleges and universities know and not know about the history of this nation? What grade would they receive if tested?

ACTA commissioned the Roper organization—The Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut—to survey college seniors from the nation’s best colleges and universities as identified by the U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings. The top 55 liberal arts colleges and research universities were sampled during December 1999. (For a list, see Appendix A.)

The questions were drawn from a basic high school curriculum. In fact, many of the questions had been used in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests given to high school students.

How did seniors from our nation’s top colleges and universities do? They flunked. Four out of five—81%—of seniors from the top 55 colleges and universities in the United States received a grade of D or F. They could not identify Valley Forge, or words from the Gettysburg Address, or even the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution.

  • Scarcely more than half knew general information about American democracy and the Constitution.
  • Only 34% of the students surveyed could identify George Washington as an American general at the battle of Yorktown, the culminating battle of the American Revolution.
  • Only 42% were able to identify George Washington as “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
  • Less than one quarter (23%) correctly identified James Madison as the “father of the Constitution.”
  • Even fewer—22% of the college seniors—were able to identify “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” as a line from the Gettysburg Address—arguably one of the three most important documents underlying the American system of government.
  • Over one-third were unable to identify the U.S. Constitution as establishing the division of power in American government.
  • Little more than half (52%) knew George Washington’s Farewell Address warned against permanent alliances with foreign governments.

What do they know? They get an A+ in contemporary popular culture.

  • 99% know who the cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead are.
  • 98% can identify the rap singer Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Beavis and Butthead instead of Washington and Madison; Snoop Doggy Dogg instead of Lincoln? How did it come to this? Students and parents are paying $30,000 a year at elite
institutions.

For what?