Trustees | General Education

Give thanks that you know anything

WASHINGTON EXAMINER   |  November 22, 2012 by Daniel Burnett

America has come a long way since it gained independence from Britain by winning the Battle of the Bulge. Women’s rights have progressed to the point that Sandra Day O’Connor is now chief justice of the United States. The “Father of the Constitution,” Benjamin Franklin, would be proud.

Wait a second–something’s wrong here.

The mistakes above were among the many incorrect answers given in a recent American history survey … of college graduates. So as we take a break to enjoy our turkey dinners, let’s remember also that many college students are starving from a lack of American history knowledge.

A recent Roper survey found only 57 percent of college graduates knew John Roberts is a chief justice. Less than one-fifth could identify James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.” Perhaps worst of all, only 42 percent knew that the Battle of the Bulge was fought during World War II. And this is from a multiple choice survey–among college graduates!

It may not be necessary for students to know from memory that Millard Fillmore was the thirteenth president or that James Madison, at 5 feet 4 inches, was the shortest. But to graduate from an American college without a basic grasp of our history leaves one poorly prepared to face the challenges of life. Such historical illiteracy also is an insult to the men and women who formed our nation, and those who have defended her since.

The ignorance should not surprise us. A nationwide study of more than 1,000 colleges and universities, “What Will They Learn?” (, found that 80 percent of our colleges don’t require students to take even a single foundational course in American history. More than 85 percent don’t require students to study a foreign language. And despite the state of the global economy, only 5 percent of our colleges require even a basic economics course.

Educational specialization is important. But in a nation that relies on an educated citizenry, shouldn’t Americans have a basic core of knowledge that unites us as a people? Today, when more college graduates can identify Lady Gaga as a musical artist than George Washington as the general at Yorktown, that shared foundation is surely lacking.

Employers are concerned, too. Fully 87 percent believe our colleges must raise the quality of students’ educations in order for the United States to remain competitive globally, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

It’s a serious case of academic irresponsibility. College tuitions have more than quadrupled in the past 25 years, yet colleges are failing to provide our students with the educational foundation they deserve and our country needs. There are further implications. Young people have voted in record numbers in the last two presidential elections, yet more than 60 percent in the survey couldn’t identify term lengths of senators and representatives for which they cast ballots. 

The box office hit “Lincoln” is making millions–and for good reason. Not only is it a phenomenal story of one of the most critical periods of American history, but it may actually be new material to many college graduates.

After all, only 17 percent knew the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation.


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