Trustees | General Education

College graduates are not learning the basics of citizenship

KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL   |  February 9, 2013 by Courtney Michaluk

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent proposal to raise the number of post-secondary degree holders in Tennessee from 32 to 55 percent by 2025 shows he prioritizes higher education. But while it’s important to expand the number of college graduates, it’s also important to stay focused on what really matters: Namely, what are Tennessee students actually learning?

In a recent Roper survey, less than 18 percent of college graduates around the country could identify Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as the source of the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” yet more than 96 percent could identify Lady Gaga as a musical performer.

While it’s easy to blame the problem on pop culture’s ability to pervade student life, there is a deeper issue. Colleges and universities that promise to deliver a strong general education aren’t practicing what they preach. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni researched more than 1,000 schools nationwide to see what core courses are required in order to obtain a degree. The results were dismal: 82 percent of colleges and universities don’t require a single course in American history, and less than 5 percent require students to take even a basic economics course. In our age of globalized markets, less than 14 percent require intermediate-level foreign language ability.

This “do-it-yourself” approach to curriculum is sweeping the country, and sadly Tennessee is no exception. Instead of insisting on a solid foundation in courses like American history, foreign language and economics, Tennessee colleges and universities—both public and private—are allowing students to meet their “distribution requirements” with small boutique courses.

At the University of Tennessee, students can take “The History of Rock” to satisfy one of the two arts and humanities requirements. Yet students aren’t required to take American history or government.

At Vanderbilt University, students have taken an anthropology course titled “Disney in America” to fulfill the first-year writing seminar requirement that uses films like “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” to examine how Disney has shaped the American perspective on matters of gender, family and race. Yet, economics, math, American history, foreign language and literature aren’t required to graduate.

When notable schools across the country ignore foundational subjects necessary for a true liberal arts education, they do their students a disservice—and one that lasts beyond graduation.

According to a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 68 percent of employers said four-year colleges and universities need improvement in preparing students for the challenges of the global economy, and 52 percent think schools have to place more emphasis on civic knowledge if the United States wishes to remain internationally competitive. When less than 14 percent of schools require a foreign language and less than 5 percent require economics, it’s obvious why employers are concerned.

It might not be necessary for students to memorize the Constitution while speaking fluent Russian, but when students can list the characters in “Aladdin” and not the framers of the Constitution, it’s easy to imagine James Madison is rolling in his grave. Did you know he was considered the Father of the Constitution? If not, don’t worry. Seventy-seven percent of American college graduates didn’t, either.


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.

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