Keeping fat cats behind the scenes

Posted: Thursday, August 10, 2000

More bad news from the front in the War Against Ignorance.

Ignorance is winning.

A Washington group of conservative bent, dedicated to the promotion of liberal-arts study, recently gave an American history exam to 556 randomly selected seniors at 55 universities and colleges of the better sort (Harvard, Princeton, Brown; that crowd) and found out that the kids, for the most part, didn't know diddly-squat about American history.

The average score on this 34-question, multiple-choice test was 53 percent and only one student got them all right. This despite the fact that the questions were generously described as ``high school level.'' (In the 1940s, they might have been asked of eighth-graders to determine whether they were ready for high school.) For example:

``When was the Civil War?'' And the choices given are 1750-1800, 1800-1850, 1850-1900, 1900-1950 and after 1950. Sixty percent of the students got that one right. In other words, 40 percent of these hotshots from elite universities and colleges could not place the American Civil War in the correct half-century.

It gets worse. ``Who was the American general at Yorktown?'' the test inquired, the choices being William T. Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur and George Washington. Only 34 percent answered Washington, the only Revolutionary War general on the list. Two-thirds of the grads, apparently, didn't know Yorktown was a crucial battle of that war.

You want to leave a full 70 percent of our Best and Brightest behind? Ask them which piece of social legislation was passed as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society program: The Sherman Antitrust Act, The Voting Rights Act, The Tennessee Valley Authority or The Civilian Conservation Corps? Not knowing it was the Voting Rights Act means that 70 percent of graduates in our nation's best schools have virtually no knowledge of the history of perhaps the single most important social movement of the past half-century.

I could go on, but it's all too depressing. Suffice to say that the two highest scores were achieved on questions that required knowing that Beavis and Butthead are television cartoon characters and that Snoop Doggy Dog is a rap singer. Snoop got 98 percent name-recognition and B&B got 99.

I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that they didn't think Snoop was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

It is hardly a coincidence that none of the schools that produced these students require American history courses for graduation and, apparently, not many students take them as an elective.

I mean, we are not talking trick questions here or even questions that require a detailed knowledge of much of anything. We're talking more like a ``Do You Want To Be a Thousandaire'' level of knowledge.

Not being able to do even that indicates that the test-taker is virtually clueless about American history. I'm not one to brag, but I took the test and got only one wrong and I haven't been inside of a history classroom in 40 years. (The reason I'm not bragging is that I'm ashamed of myself; there was no reason to get any wrong.)

What does it matter, you ask, that these overeducated brats are undereducated when it comes to American history? Not much in itself, but it is a truly ominous sign that the dumbing-down of America has reached critical proportions.

If these kids, who have had access to some of the finest schooling our nation has to offer, are this poorly informed about the history of their nation, one can only imagine with horror how little the rest of the larger population of young people know about it.

This is the generation that's going to be running the country in 20 or 30 years. How can you run something when you don't know anything about its history? Even more importantly, how can you choose leaders when all you know is the name of the celebrity-of-the-week and related matters?

Democracy requires the intelligent participation of people who know something about the issues, who can place facts in historical context and make sense of them. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to do that, nor have a Ph.D. in history. But you do have to know a little bit about how we got where we are. At least that.

The fact that we seem to be turning out a generation of youngsters who lack even that little bit is a national scandal - and tragedy.

Don Kaul is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.



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