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An 'F' in history

Research group says higher education does a lousy job of training citizens

Once again, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute of Wilmington, Del., has determined that higher education does a lousy job of training American citizens. Exhibit A is its latest 60-question, multiple-choice test on American history and government, international relations, and market economy.

The ISI conducted its initial survey in fall 2005, among approximately 14,000 college freshmen and seniors at 50 institutions, and published the dismal results in a report called The Coming Crisis in Citizenship. Repeating the experiment in fall 2006, with a similar format but different students, the ISI finds no cause to celebrate, as indicated in the report released last month: Failing Our Students, Failing America.

The average score among all students surveyed was 52.9 percent, an F. Even Harvard seniors, the highest scoring group, averaged only 69.6 (D+). Worse is the finding that that civics knowledge apparently declined in most colleges: Incoming freshmen scored better than seniors.

The quiz itself, posted on the ISI website, sent concerned Americans to their keyboards to click their own answers to the questions. It also stirred heated remarks in the comments sections of news websites. One retired teacher complained that the test showed what's wrong with history education: an over-emphasis on names, dates, and events (huh?). A retired student asked why knowing when Jamestown was founded was relevant.

Others quibbled over some of the questions, which were either too esoteric or too interpretive, while some wrung their rhetorical hands over the PC poisoning of academe. Inevitably, George Santayana was trotted out for quote time ("Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it").

The problem with history is that there's so much of it: more than enough to cherry-pick for propaganda purposes, too much to grasp comprehensively. The response is often cynicism or indifference: What does it matter whether Gettysburg came before Appomattox, anyway?

My answer is that a well-furnished mind is full of labeled shelves for receiving new knowledge, and the more shelves (i.e., context) you have, the more you'll understand. This includes chronology, as well as biography, philosophy, economics, etc. Or, as one website commentator remarked, history is the Swiss Army knife of education-relatively easy to acquire, endlessly handy for all disciplines.

Solomon weighed in on this, when history was new: "The wise lay up knowledge" (Proverbs 10:14). Historical knowledge is tracking providence off the pages of scripture and down through time; we make it, but it also makes us.