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Thursday, September 28, 2006
Stupid College Students! (Or, Maybe not…)
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 9:08 am

Pete Du Pont in OpinionJournal is alarmed at what college students don’t know:

In the fall of 2005 ISI worked with the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy to ask “more than 14,000 randomly selected college freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities across the country”-an average of about 140 each of freshman and seniors on each campus-what they knew about America’s constitutional and governmental history and policies. The colleges ran from state institutions-the University of New Mexico and the University of California at Berkeley, for example, to Ivy League schools like Yale, Brown and Harvard, and less-well-known institutions like Grove City College and Appalachian State University.

Some colleges did better than others, but few of them added very much to students’ knowledge of America’s history or government. College freshmen averaged 51.7%, and the seniors averaged 53.2%, so there was a slight gain in knowledge. But the average senior scored only 58.5% on American history questions, slightly above 51% on government and America-and-the-world questions, and 50.5% on market economy questions. By every college’s grading system those are failing grades.

On the one hand, yes: those are poor scores. And yes, one would very much like citizens to have a high level of knowledge about US history and politics-especially if they are going to vote.

Speaking of voting, it strikes me that these rates aren’t all that different from voter turn-out rates (although granted voter turn-out rates measure all citizens, not just college grads). Still, my point is that there is some self-selection going on here.
A lot of people, even smart, educated ones, aren’t all that interested in history and politics.

But wait! you say: being a citizen is more than just about what one is interested in knowing. Well, yes and no. We are biological beings-indeed, that trumps us as political beings. Yet, we are generally quite ignorant about basic biology. It should be no surprise that a good number of people (even educated ones) are ignorant about basic politics.

Further, some of this stuff is, let’s be honest, trivia. While on one level it is ridiculous that students confuse (as many did in the survey) Yorktown with Gettysberg. However, does it really matter in terms of good citizenship, or really much of anything, if a large number of people don’t know the names of key historical battles?

I agree that our general political knowledge is pathetically anemic, but I am not sure it is the crisis that these kinds of columns and surveys make them out to be.

Not surprisingly, part of the issue has to do with the courses students take:

How did these educational failures come to pass? ISI concludes that “students don’t learn what colleges don’t teach.” In other words, in colleges where students must take more courses in American history they do better on the test, outperforming schools where fewer courses were completed. Seniors at the top test-scoring colleges “took an average of 4.2 history and political science courses, while seniors at the two lowest-ranked colleges . . . took an average of 2.9 history and political science courses.” Similarly, higher ranked colleges spent more time on homework, 20 hours a week at fourth-ranked Grove City College and 14 or 15 at low-ranked Georgetown and Berkeley.

It stands to reason that students who take more polisci and history will do better on a test like this than those who take less. However, that issue is harder to remedy than one might think. Schools with rigid general studies curricula already have them packed with any number of subjects, including math, science and comp/lit. To add more history and polisc would mean wresting precious semester hours from one class to add another. This is a difficult thing to do-as curriculum planning is a zero-sum game.

Would I, as a political scientist, like to see students take more polisci classes? Yes, I would. But, so, too, would the math faculty like students to take more math, the English faculty more lit and comp, the science faculty more science and so forth. And each faculty has a legitimate reason for thinking that citizens need to understand their respective fields. However, time is finite (as are the interests and skills of students).

Further, there are self-selection issues here. Some schools have fairly loose general studies requirements, meaning students can choose from a wide array of courses. Even those which have fairly rigid requirements likely allow students to make some choices, like whether to take US history or world history.

In regards to homework, while certainly the work assigned by professors is part of the issue, the main issue there is the motivation of the students.

I would also question the validity of “time spent on homework” as a metric here, as it stands to reason that brighter students (like those admitted to schools like Georgetown and Berkeley) might make more efficient usages of their time than those at other schools-at least in the aggregate. In other words, there is a serious quality/quantity problem here. I have students who clearly need less study time than others. I would also note that focusings on homework hours strikes me as K-12 type of measure.

Filed under: US Politics, Academia | |Send TrackBack

Outside The Beltway | OTB linked with Don’t Know Much About History

2 Comments »

  1. Don’t Know Much About History

    Pete DuPont is shocked-shocked!-that American college students have a poor knowledge of American history.
    Among college seniors, less than half-47.9%-correctly concluded that “We hold these truths to be self evident, that …

    Trackback by Outside The Beltway | OTB — Thursday, September 28, 2006 @ 11:45 am

  2. Yeah, you’re dead on here: first, this is really trivia, not a reflection of historical knowledge. Second, I assume that the sampling was well done, and thus one would expect that liberal arts colleges would have students more versed in these topics than mega-versities whose samples would include more science majors.

    Much ado about nothing, to coin a phrase.

    Comment by Professor Chaos — Thursday, September 28, 2006 @ 6:42 pm

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