EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Opinion

December 30, 2012

Column: Hollywood shows it can beat Harvard at history

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.

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