Trustees | General Education

Americans’ Lack of Education in History is a Worry

WALL STREET JOURNAL   |  September 30, 2011 by Anne D. Neal

Norm Augustine is correct that historical illiteracy at the high school level threatens American’s economic and political pre-eminence and puts American workers at a competitive disadvantage (“The Education Our Economy Needs,” op-ed, Sept. 21). But what is missing in his piece are even more troubling problems in higher education. Our research of more than 1,000 schools around the country shows that our next generation of leaders is graduating from college with the same lack of foundational knowledge.

But when these same students go into college historically illiterate, our research shows that colleges are doing little or nothing to address the gaps. Only 5% of the schools we surveyed require a class in basic economics. Less than 20% of schools require American history or government. Across the country, institutions have largely abdicated their responsibility of pointing students to what they need to know in favor of an “anything goes” curriculum.

A recent Roper survey found that 70% of Americans believe colleges and universities should require all students to take basic classes in core subjects such as writing, math, science, economics, U.S. history, and foreign language. That number spikes to 80% among 25- to 34-year-olds–those recently out of college who find that their diploma is often not worth the paper it’s printed on.

Our colleges must ensure that students are receiving an efficient and coherent liberal arts core if we want to retain our economic and political leadership. The issues raised by Mr. Augustine are part of a far bigger and more definitional challenge to America’s leadership, namely the disturbing failures in higher education to give our graduates the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed.

Anne D. Neal is the President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.


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.

Discover More