It’s the holidays, college and university students are mostly back at home, and here’s a thought. There’s a great movie out about Abraham Lincoln, and with no classes to interfere, they ought to go to it and learn some American history.
Many students, you may not realize, don’t know beans about their own country’s past. Back some years ago, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni commissioned a study of how much seniors at 55 elite universities knew about fundamental, high school-level historical matters, and guess what. A startling 81 percent got either a “D” or an “F” on a test.
This year, the group commissioned another study, this one of college graduates, and found just a sliver knew James Madison was the father of the Constitution or George Washington the victorious general at Yorktown. Only 17 percent could identify the source of the phrase “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
The issue is not one of student stupidity, but of institutional neglect. The council has conducted another study showing you can get out of most institutions of higher learning without taking the kinds of courses that turn on the lights for you as a human being and a citizen, giving you a broad understanding of this world. By the reckoning of the council, schools ought to be requiring courses in U.S. history or government, science, math, literature, economics a foreign language and composition, and most are sloppy about it.
Only 2 percent of 1,070 surveyed schools get an “A” for mandating study in at least six of these knowledge areas, and I am proud to say I have taught at one of them, Colorado Christian University. By contrast, one university that received a “D” is supposedly one of the best in America, a place that is unbelievably tough to get into and proffers a degree that opens career doors hither, yon and in between. I mean Harvard, whose failings are the subject of “Privilege,” a splendidly written 2005 book by Ross Gregory Douthat.
Douthat, a conservative columnist at the ultra-liberal New York Times, says being a student at Harvard is more nearly about success than learning, even though, yes, there are lots of brilliant people around, including professors who inflate your grades even as too few offer up terrific classes. One problem is that there’s no guidance about what to take, and the choices available in core curriculum subject areas can be leaps and bounds from anything central and substantive.
All of which brings us to the “Lincoln” movie. Let’s first get the criticism out of the way, namely that there are some false moments lessening instead of focusing the drama. But the movie as a whole is an intense experience of a great man pulling off the great accomplishment of winning a House of Representatives vote furthering the 13th Amendment that ended slavery in the United States. I am a fan of Lincoln and books about him and found the depiction of him incredibly convincing, as did some historians who have also commented that the movie is basically sound in its wondrously moving portrayal of events.
The short of it is that someone could go to this movie and learn more about a crucial episode in American history than during a four-year stay at one of hundreds of colleges, including the fact that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was the source of the phrase about government of, by and for all of us. They would not have to spend a ton on tuition, either, or end up owing enough to the federal government’s ultra-inflationary student loan program to be in debt for years.
Our universities need reform, serious, tuition-reducing, curriculum-improving reform that also sees professors putting teaching above publishing as the way to keep from perishing. Here and there are hints of steps in hopeful directions, such as Texas and Florida developing online degree programs costing a total of $10,000. Minus some experiments that work, the hurt will be grievous to a whole slew of people, and to something else as well: our American future.
Jay Ambrose is the former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers.