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What Every Student Should Know
Political Junkie

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, April 17, 2000

The best and brightest? I think not. Consider the results of a recent survey that tested the historical knowledge of seniors at the 55 top colleges in the country, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

"Although they were given specific answers from which to choose, the seniors could still not identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address, or even the basic principles of the Constitution," reported the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), which sponsored the poll.

Others who have seen the survey results urge caution. Even though the questions were drawn from high school textbooks, many are difficult. Well, perhaps. But you be the judge. Here's a sampling of findings from the ACTA poll:

Barely half—52 percent—knew George Washington's Farewell Address warned against establishing permanent alliances with foreign governments.

Not even one in four—23 percent—correctly identified James Madison as the "Father of the Constitution."

Only 22 percent were able to identify the source of the phrase "Government of the people, by the people, for the people," as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Barely a third of the students could identify George Washington as an American general at the battle of Yorktown, "the culminating battle of the American Revolution."

One in four said they were familiar with the Emancipation Proclamation, and only slightly more—29 percent—could identify Reconstruction.

Slightly more than a third were unable to identify the U.S. Constitution "as establishing the division of power in American government."

So what do today's college seniors know? Prepare to be chagrined. Nearly everyone—99 percent—could identify the cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead. And 98 percent recognized the name of the hard-core rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Overall, researchers said that eight in 10 missed so many questions that they would have gotten either a D or an F grade on ACTA's history test—a disturbing finding, as the questions were drawn from a basic high school history curriculum.

But not unexpected: At three out of four of these leading liberal arts and research universities, students are not required to take a single history course in order to earn a degree.

Educators and historians were predictably outraged by the poll findings.

"Shocking," concludes Walter McDonald, the Pulitzer prize-winning historian at the University of Pennsylvania. "In fact, they are all too predictable, which is why they deserve the widest dissemination. Americans simply cannot expect rigorous history instruction in the K-12 schools so long as the nation's elite colleges and universities delete history from their curricula."

"This is a clarion call for action," says ACTA vice president Anne D. Neal. "If institutions of higher education no longer require their students to have a basic knowledge of American civilization and its heritage, we are all in danger of losing a common frame of reference that has sustained our free society fo so many generations."

ACTA recommends that colleges and universities require at least one course in American history. It also suggests that "parents help their students select colleges with strong history requirements and that students be encouraged to take American history whether it is required or not."

The survey results were based on interviews with 556 college seniors conducted in December by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.

What Do Girls Want?

Girls just want to have fun? Well, sometimes. But today's girls also want to be taken seriously, according to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Girls Incorporated.

They survey found that more than half—52 percent—of girls interviewed said that "people think girls are only interested in love and romance." Six in 10 said they experienced stereotypes that limit their right to be themselves and resist gender stereotypes. Six in 10 report that in school, boys think they have a "right to discuss girls' bodies in public."

Moreover, about half of all girls interviewed—47 percent—agreed that girls have the same "abilities and strengths" as boys, only 29 percent of boys agreed. A total of 2,028 girls and boys in grades 3 through 12 were interviewed last October for this survey.

"Girls are getting the message that they can do anything boys can, but they feel frustrated by obsolete stereotypes that hold them back from reaching their goals," says Isabel Carter Stewart, national executive director of Girls Inc., a non-profit organization that sponsors education programs.

Telepathy Trumps Darwinism

Is there intelligent life on other planets? Who knows. We're wondering if there is intelligent life in New Jersey. Consider this result from a recent statewide survey by Rutgers University and the Newark Star-Ledger: More people believe in extra-sensory perception (63 percent) than in the theory of evolution (53 percent).

The survey also found that more people believe there is life on other planets (56 percent) than that medical doctors are "usually right" (45 percent).

And this is cruel: More people believe in ghosts (44 percent) than believe that "Bill and Hillary Clinton like each other" (41 percent).

Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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