Editorial: Stanford, UC flunk U.S. history

This is more than a little disturbing. A new national survey of 14,000 students at 50 universities shows that seniors at prestigious University of California, Berkeley, actually knew 6 percentage points less about American history, government, current events and the market economy than the entering freshmen. At equally prestigious Stanford University, seniors’ scores in the 60-question, multiple-choice test were less than 1 percent better than what incoming freshmen knew.

Not that the nationwide results of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s survey were more reassuring. Less than half of college seniors knew that the Bill of Rights specifically prohibits establishment of an official U.S. religion. Almost one-third believed the Civil War battle of Gettysburg ended the American Revolution, and nearly 20 percent thought Saddam Hussein’s strongest supporters were the Communist Party or Israel.

UC Berkeley earned a failing grade. It ranked only 49th out of 50 on the survey, barely beating out highly respected Johns Hopkins University and coming in six places behind No. 44 Yale. Stanford made it all the way to No. 31 with a D average that was only 9 points better than Berkeley’s score.

No doubt there would be laughs aplenty ifJay Leno showed up to record a “Jaywalking” segment on a campus of one of the Bay Area’s top universities. However, it is truly not funny that future generations of America’s leaders are not learning the basic information that would enable them to function as effective voters and as citizens capable of preserving the constitutional rights that made this country great.

Chairmen of the history or political science departments at Stanford and Berkeley were quick to try for a positive spin on their schools’ test failures. One of the most dubious rationales was that major universities now tend to emphasize the teaching of theory and critical thinking instead of facts and historical dates, which are considered academically old-fashioned.

The survey came to two main conclusions pointing to a way out of this mess: The best-scoring schools are those requiring somewhat more courses in American history, political science and economics. And students who demonstrate greater learning about America’s history and institutions become more actively engaged in citizenship activities such as voting, community volunteering and political campaigns.

This year, the public will invest more than $325 billion in undergraduate education. A university education can cost families as much as $200,000, and the average undergraduate leaves campus $19,300 in debt. Yet college graduates, even at America’s top-ranked schools, are no better off than when they arrived from high school when it comes to gaining knowledge about key areas of America’s constitutional and economic workings.

This cannot be allowed to continue. A rising generation without the knowledge necessary to be a well-informed citizen could mean big trouble for our republic.

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