AMERICAN COLLEGE students don't know much about the rest of the world, another academic study gloomily concludes. This one, called the Global Understanding Survey, was conducted by the Educational Testing Service. Well, it's disappointing that the kids got so many answers wrong, after all that education.
But wait a minute -- let's have another look at those questions. Here's one on energy that asks what the experts predict for future consumption of fossil fuels. The right answer, according to ETS, is very rapid and continuous growth through the next century and beyond. What experts do you suppose the ETS has been consulting? Like most of the students taking the test, we would have got that one wrong -- if you assume that the ETS answer is right. Which we don't.
Let's try history. When, asks the test, is "the western sovereign territorial state and the modern state system" usually dated from? The right answer, according to the test, is 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia. That's odd. We would hae thought it was usually dated from the end of the 15th century, or the early 16th.
What were the largest groups of people living outside their home countries a couple of years ago? The answers that ETS likes best is the millions of foreign workers in Western Europe. The authors of the study deplore the students' ignorance of European social conditions. But another answer to that question was the millions of immigrant workers and illegal aliens in the United States. Figures on these things are never precise, but our own impression is that the illegal aliens here are substantially more numerous than the foreign workers in Europe.
The test will have performed a certain service if it induces readers to be cautious about broad indictments of American education based on this peculiar kind of questions and answers. Our own sense of the matter is a bit different from the study's. American college and university students, in the Vietnam period, largely turned away from the world and looked inward, to their own country and their own spirits. That pattern is now reversing itself, and young people are more commonly looking outward again. For a country that must live by its intellectual and technical capabilities, the study of the rest of the world -- its politics, its economics and emphatically its languages -- can hardly progress too rapidly. But perhaps the students' competence is greater than the Global Understanding Survey suggests. The students' answers were sometimes better than their examiners'.