College Seniors Illiterate
on United States History

Andrea Billups

[ Reprinted from "Washington's History a Mystery to Collegians,"
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 Gettysburg address.
  • A little more than a third were unable to identify the U.S. Constitution as establishing the division of power in American government.

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.'"