Policymakers | General Education

Nation forgets its history

At too many universities and colleges, niche classes trump fundamental history classes: "We're trading Lincoln for Lady Gaga.
PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER   |  April 14, 2015 by Daniel Burnett

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history… The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.”

Sadly, he was wrong on this point.

A survey commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and released on the 150th anniversary of the night Lincoln was shot reveals that much of our 16th president’s legacy is being lost to the ages. Today, half of the American public doesn’t know when the Civil War took place.


One in five Americans failed to identify John Wilkes Booth as Lincoln’s assassin, and one in three could not identify Lincoln as a leader of the Union Army, in a multiple choice survey. Just 18 percent knew the effect of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. And when asked to identify Lincoln’s words, more respondents chose a passage from the Declaration of Independence than Lincoln’s famous phrase from the Gettysburg Address “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”

College graduates, too, struggled with the survey. More than a third of graduates didn’t know when the Civil War took place, and only 28 percent knew the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. Less than 40 percent correctly identified the phrase from the Gettysburg Address as Lincoln’s.

Sadly, it should come as no surprise. Today, not even one in five colleges requires students to take a single foundational course in American history or government, according to the “What Will They Learn?” study. In Pennsylvania, only three of 75 colleges and universities require the course.

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” or “Horror Films in American Culture.”

Niche classes on sex, zombies, and musical artists – often financially supported by U.S. taxpayers – should never be substituted for the basics of our history and system of government. We’re trading Lincoln for Lady Gaga.

Soon we’ll pay a higher price. Fully 80 percent of employers believe college students, regardless of major, should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

What is the solution? The American people and boards of trustees must demand that students graduate college with knowledge of our past. It’s not easy to change the curricula of hundreds of institutions, but once again we should look to Lincoln:

“It is not ‘Can any of us imagine better?’ but ‘Can we all do better?’ . . . The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Let’s hope Lincoln was right about that.


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