Alumni | General Education

Academic amnesia: Why Is WWI disappearing in higher education?

WASHINGTON EXAMINER   |  April 6, 2017 by Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill

In World War I, 53,000 Americans died. One of them may have been your ancestor. The reasons behind this conflict and its impact on world history influence daily life today. But you’d be hard pressed to learn any of this on U.S. college campuses.

April 6 is the 100th anniversary of America entering WWI. Yet more than 81 percent of colleges do not require a course in U.S. government or history. This includes Princeton, which Woodrow Wilson led before he became president and commander-in-chief during WWI.

At two-thirds of “top” ranked schools, even history majors are not required to take a course in U.S. history.

History matters. The events of WWI are tightly woven into the fabric of American history. Its enduring impact resonates still in American foreign relations, literature and even in the creation of the charitable tax deduction.

Congress, at the time, was worried there would be a drop in citizens supporting schools and universities because of the “war to end all wars,” so it passed a law allowing for the donation amount to be deducted from their taxable income.

When only 35 percent of schools require a literature course, how are students to understand WWI’s indelible influence upon the Lost Generation and its writers, who came of age during this period? American literary giants such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner were each products of this trying time.

The conflict changed Middle East borders — including those of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — the seeds of nationalist and religious strife that still plague us today. Terrorist threats from the Islamic State, al Qaeda and the Taliban to some degree trace back to the failed peace of the Treaty of Versailles and the ineffectual League of Nations.

So what are students learning instead?

At many elite institutions, they can take entire courses devoted to the contributions of Kanye West, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga to pop culture. Rice University has offered seminars in “The World According to Pixar” and “Robots, Zombies, and Vamps, Oh My!: The Cultural Contexts of Horror” that satisfy its writing and communication requirement. The University of Pennsylvania considers its course on “Wasting Time on the Internet” worthy of Ivy League students.

Students are apparently more apt to study the rise of the West-Kardashian commercial empire than the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

It’s not surprising that researchers found that nearly 40 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college. Students may leave with diplomas, but perhaps not much else. A college education should offer more than a practiced hand at the beer pong table and hours of watching the TV hit “The Bachelor.”

Higher education is long-overdue for a renewal of the core curriculum subjects that too often receive short shrift today, such as political, diplomatic and military history. In fact, a 2014 GfK survey found that 81 percent agreed that colleges should require basic classes in core subjects such as writing, literature, math, science, economics, U.S. history and foreign language. And today’s college graduates will surely wish they had received better intellectual preparation when they face the realities of a competitive workforce and make difficult policy choices as citizens and civic leaders.

A century later, America’s fateful involvement in World War I and other foreign wars is a powerful reminder that the lessons of history are worth learning. Democracy and civic engagement require a well-informed citizenry. It’s time that citizens, parents and students demand more of colleges and universities, because left unchecked, faculty and administrators will continue to neglect their responsibility to teach the lessons of the past.


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