Students & Parents | General Education

FDR was president during which war?

New survey shows that about 40% don't know the answer. Blame it on our education system.
USA TODAY   |  September 15, 2014

There were many Roosevelts in that room on E. 76thStreet.

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1905, future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt watched his fiancée, also named Roosevelt, enter the drawing room of an upscale residence in New York City. It was Franklin’s wedding day — and giving Eleanor, the bride, away was yet another Roosevelt.

Her uncle: President Theodore Roosevelt.

Before the political dynasties of the Bushes or Kennedys, there were the Roosevelts. From Panama to Pearl Harbor — amid expansion, Depression, peace and war — these two leaders led our country through some of the most challenging years of the 20th century. They lived in the eye of political storm and often controversy. Their acts and policies are at the center of our nation’s history.

But as Americans prepare to watch filmmaker Ken Burns’ latest documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,airing Sunday, a new study suggests that most citizens will have a very muddled idea of who, which and what Roosevelt was on the world stage and why it should matter.

Shockingly, according to a new survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, only 60% of Americans surveyed know Franklin D. Roosevelt was president during World War II and less than half knew he was the president responsible for the New Deal.

The story is the same for Teddy. Just two in five Americans associated Teddy Roosevelt with the Panama Canal. Only about a quarter could identify Roosevelt with the Bull Moose Party — an especially lackluster score considering it was a multiple choice survey.

Even among college graduates, the situation isn’t much better: after spending tens of thousands of dollars on a college education, more than one in four college graduates still don’t know FDR was president during World War II.

Is this the informed citizen that America needs?

One look at our education system explains the crisis of America’s historical amnesia: Students aren’t learning history in grade school and are behind when they enter college. Instead of ensuring students have a basic foundation, too many colleges allow students to skip American history boutique courses — funded at least in part by taxpayers.

At Michigan’s Oakland University, American history can be swapped with “Foundations of Rock,” “Dance in American Culture,” or “Human Sexuality.”

At the University of California-Berkeley, the requirement can be replaced with “Dutch Culture and Society: Amsterdam and Berkeley in the Sixties.”

And at the University of Colorado, American history can be replaced with “America through Baseball,” “Horror Films in American Culture” or even “Wops and Dons to Movers and Shakers: The Italian-American Experience.”

Yes, one can learn from trendy, niche classes – but when barely half of college graduates know when D-Day was, it’s absurd to pretend that colleges and universities are offering anything more than a hollow credential that does little to prepare the next generation for the challenges of career and citizenship.

Today, only 18% of colleges require students to take even a single course in American history or government, according to the What Will They Learn? study of more than 1,000 colleges and universities nationwide. Just 14% require foreign language and a paltry 3% require economics.

Let’s be clear about the consequences. These students leave college civically disempowered, too ignorant to understand how our institutions of government work and how we arrived at the policies and challenges we have today.

This week, U.S. News and World Report released the results of their best colleges ranking, which uses measures like student selectivity and alumni donations to determine which colleges are “best.” Unfortunately, those measures have very little to do with what really matters — a strong educational foundation.

It’s critical that students and parents peel away reputation to focus on actual results. Too many colleges graduate students with no more knowledge of foundational subjects than a 12th grader.

This is a problem we are inflicting on ourselves, and it can have real consequences for the future. It may not be crucial for students to memorize every line of the Declaration of Independence or list the dates of every battle during World War II, but if they don’t know the underlying significance of these events, they will neither understand the present nor be ready for the future.

How certain of a future can it be when more than a third of Americans 18 to 34 don’t even know D-Day occurred during World War II?


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