Trustees | General Education

A nation of the ignorant

America appears to be losing those who know their history
WASHINGTON TIMES   |  December 4, 2014 by Peter Hannaford

Are we becoming a nation of numbskulls? If recent surveys, both formal and informal, are any indication, it’s a real possibility. For example:

Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly has a good-natured reporter, Jesse Watters, who does man-on-the-street interviews on topics of the day. One day he’ll be at Coney Island, another in Florida. On Oct. 10 he was in Sleepy Hollow, New York, made famous by Washington Irving’s story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” about Ichabod Crane’s encounter with a ghost, the Headless Horseman.

Mr. Watters says he interviews people at random. Most of the dozen or so in the clip shown that day were young adults. Surprise: Several town residents interviewed didn’t know about Ichabod Crane or the Headless Horseman.

Since it was Columbus Day he also asked about the great mariner’s significance. Only one person got it right. Another when asked for the date of Columbus’ journey to the New World said, “1964?”

This was emblematic of the level of ignorance of most of his respondents’ answers no matter where in the United States he conducts interviews. Watch a few of these sessions and you will think we are, indeed, turning out an entire generation of dunces.

To add to the gloom, the Pew Research Center recently conducted a “nationally representative” survey of 1,002 adults. They asked 12 multiple-choice questions about current events. All of the topics have been much in the news and presumably most Americans consume news regularly from newspapers, magazines, television, radio the Internet. Nearly half—47 percent—got zero to four answers correct. Only 14 percent got nine to all 12 answers correct.

Education level appears to have much to do with knowing what is going on in the world. College graduates surveyed scored highest in nine of the 12 questions. Well over half of them got seven of the 12 questions. This was true of only two questions answered by those with a high school education or less (one was picking the correct minimum wage today; the other the name of a country—other then Iraq—where ISIS controls land).

At about the same time, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni released its sixth annual study of core curricula in 1,098 four-year colleges and universities. They found that only 18 percent of these institutions require a course in American history for graduation. This exacerbates a problem already created by the reduction of history and civics classes in many public school districts.

Michael Poliakoff, who directed the survey, told The Wall Street Journal that many campus administrators dislike the ACTA study because they don’t want to pick fights with their faculty, so they let them decide which courses are important. He said, “It’s like saying to a lot of 18-year-olds, the cafeteria is open, you kids eat whatever you want.”

Many news stories these days emphasize the difficulty of college graduates finding jobs.

A result of the laissez-faire approach to course selection is that many students graduate without the grounding needed to engage in critical thinking. The job dearth is a special problem for those who are attracted to majors in such nearly job dead-end subjects as Gender Studies and Black Studies.

The authors of the ACTA survey in 2011 conducted another poll in which 70 percent of the public said colleges should require courses in core subjects. In the 25-34 age group—those with recent college experience—it was higher, 80 percent.

The remedy has several facets: teaching civics and American history classes in more secondary schools, advancing American history, government and general economics as must-take courses in colleges and universities and, at home, parents encouraging their offspring to read, especially about history and government. There are plenty of books in both categories that read like lively novels, not dull tomes.


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