College Seniors Illiterate
on United States History
Reprinted from "Washington's History a Mystery
Washington Times, 21 February 2000]
A recent survey of seniors at the nation's top 55 universities
revealed that four out of five were ignorant of even the most basic
elements of American history. Students at these elite institutions --
where tuition can run as high as $30,000 a year -- can go through four
years of classes and graduate without taking even one history course.
The survey was compiled by the Roper Organization and released by the
Council of Trustees and Alumni. Responding to questions from a high
school achievement test, the soon-to-be college graduates demonstrated
what critics call "profound historical illiteracy."
- A little more than half of them knew general information about
American democracy and the Constitution.
- Only 42 percent could identify George Washington as "first
in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen."
- Just 22 percent could identify "government of the people,
by the people, and for the people" as a line from the
- A little more than a third were unable to identify the U.S.
Constitution as establishing the division of power in American
Harvard University professor emeritus Oscar Handlin warns that
history is a discipline in decline and notes "a profound
ignorance not only among students but among their teachers as well."
A number of historians blame the decline of the history curriculum to
the notion that American history is ethnocentric or Eurocentric.
Winfield J.C. Myers, an editor at the Intercollegiate Studies
Institute, observes that many U.S. historians "are afraid to
speak out against the anti-Western ethos that reigns on so many
campuses lest they be labeled 'conservative' or 'reactionary.'"