Trustees | General Education

A timely reminder that “we cannot escape history”

USA TODAY   |  February 11, 2009 by Mary Beth Marklein

A timely quiz:

•What did the Emancipation Proclamation actually proclaim?

•What was the source of the following phrase: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people?”

•Who are Beavis and B–head (this program won’t let me post the actual name, but you know who I’m talking about anyway, right)?

USA Today reporter Rick Hampson says in a story today that, with the possible exception of Jesus and Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln is “the most compelling figure in U.S. history.” The American Council of Trustees and Alumni used the opportunity of Lincoln’s 200th birthday to point out anew how little the nation’s best-known colleges seem to care about American history.

The group dusted off a 2000 multiple-choice survey of college seniors which shows that, of 34 questions about U.S. history and government, the two Lincoln-related items yielded some of the most incorrect answers. Just 22% of college seniors in 2000 could link the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” to the famed Gettysburg Address. A mere 26% knew that the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Lincoln stated that slaves were free in areas of the Confederate states not held by the Union. (I threw in the Beavis and other guy question for extra measure. It has nothing to do with Lincoln except that 99% could identify who they are.)

The council also takes a special jab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Indiana University-Bloomington, and the University of Kentucky-Lexington. Its survey of colleges found that none of the flagship public universities in the states most closely associated with Lincoln requires students to take American history or government.

“‘We cannot escape history,’ Lincoln warned Americans more than a century ago,” said ACTA president Anne Neal. “But it’s clear that unless things change, college graduates will, in fact, escape history and be blissfully ignorant of their ignorance.”


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