(Editor’s Note: Texas House bill 1938, The American History bill, was approved by the House Higher Education Committee last Friday. The bill was authored by Representative Giovanni Capriglione. The legislation is based on model legislation crafted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Higher Education.)
Statement of Anne D. Neal,
President, American Council of Trustees and Alumni
Would college students benefit from a comprehensive survey of American history?
The answer is yes.
Research by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni shows that college graduates are woefully ignorant when it comes to basic historical literacy. A 2012 Roper survey of college graduates found that:
- Less than half could identify Washington as the American general at the Battle of Yorktown.
- A paltry 17 percent knew the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Just 17% could identify the Gettysburg Address as the source of the famous phrase, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
- A little more than half of college graduates (58%) know the Constitution established the division of powers between the states and the federal government.
- Only 20% of graduates could identify James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.”
- Barely two in five (42%) know the Battle of the Bulge was fought during World War II.
Historical amnesia is a growing epidemic among Americans – with serious consequences for a country that relies on an educated citizenry.
The cause can be traced to our educational system. Students too often graduate from high school without a basic knowledge of history, and the trend continues in college.
“What Will They Learn?,” a nationwide study of more than 1,000 colleges and universities by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, www.whatwilltheylearn.com, found over 80 percent of our colleges don’t require students to take even a single foundational course in American history. Too often, students can avoid the subject altogether or take a narrow niche course that fails to expose them to the broad sweep of American history, replete with diverse peoples and institutions. Indeed, an effective survey course will include the history of American ethnic groups and minorities.
Otherwise, too many of today’s graduates will more likely be familiar with Gangnam Style and Lady Gaga than Abigail Adams. A very disappointing Google search finds over 580 million hits for performer Justin Bieber – almost six times as many as for Abraham Lincoln.
Employers are understandably troubled. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, more than two thirds believe that our colleges must raise the quality of students’ educations in order for the United States to remain competitive globally. Meanwhile, a 2011 Roper survey shows that the American public agrees: seven in ten Americans believe colleges and universities should require that all students take basic classes in core subjects such as writing, math, science, economics, U.S. history, and foreign language. Particularly likely to agree were 25-34 year-olds (80%) – those just out of college who may find learning from such classes helpful in the job market.
Higher education in a free society has a civic purpose. Colleges and universities – with trustees, administrators and faculty working together– must ensure that students have a broad working knowledge of the history and governing institutions of their country. That understanding is indispensable for the formation of responsible citizens and for the preservation of free institutions.