Sunday, September 23, 2007

History Quiz

The American history quiz that students from American colleges, including the most prestigious schools, all failed (on average), can be found here. I got a 95%, which seems about right. I mostly missed some monetary policy questions at the end, even though I had narrowed the choices. On the other hand, I got a few right where I had narrowed the answers and then picked what looked likely.

The basic story is that not only did students average less than a 65% - in some cases much less - but at the "best" schools, there was a tendency for seniors to do worse than freshmen, indicating that they had lost ground while going to Ivies and Ivy-wannabees. Yale, Duke, Cornell, Princeton, and UPenn actually damaged their students. When one looks at the questions most frequently missed, it becomes apparent that the problem is not forgetfulness, but reversing correct answers in favor of more politically convenient myths. The questions most missed included the understanding of just war theory, separation of church and state, income distribution, and Plato's ideal of government. What are the odds. eh?

Two encouraging notes: several schools that my sons considered and their friends went to (their college was not in the survey) did better than most, and going there improved average scores: Grove City, Wheaton, and Calvin. A strong correlate with higher scores was growing up in intact families where intellectual issues were often discussed. Those students not only entered college with higher scores, but learned more while at school, even though they were no longer at home.

I was dying to know if conservative students did better than progressive ones, because the intact family and evangelical school correlates would certainly suggest that, but political preference was not included in the survey. It also didn't measure whether history majors did any better than the others.

That college is often a place to learn the template rather than, y'know, learn stuff might explain the first story here.


bs king said...

Hmmm...well I got an 85%, though I was happy to see that every one I got wrong was "huh that was my second choice" situation.

I don't know about comparing Yale, Duke or Cornell to Wheaton or Grove City though. Big universities and small liberal arts colleges? The fact that small liberal arts colleges improved their students civics knowledge more than schools with more diverse majors isn't all that surprising to me. People simply don't learn that stuff in college unless they are required to do a core curriculum type of BU that precluded anyone who was an education major, allied health, engineering, business, or communications major...well over half the school. My brothers went to a small liberal arts college though, and both took classes that would have been likely to cover those topics. I think what the debate really gets down to is what should college be teaching? If you're an engineer, should you have to take civics? Aren't civics lessons better suited for high school anyway, and if you forget some through college, is that the college's fault? As for answering a PC answer rahter than the correct one, well, I know when I don't actually know an answer, I just go with whatever one has familiar sounding words, in the hopes that they sound familiar because they're right. It's like "Huh, John Locke is the only name I recognize...maybe that's because he did something important." Anyway, hearing phrases that are used often in political debates as answers seems natural to me, not necessarily the product of being taught misinformation.

Anyway, my main question stands...why should colleges teach civics? Are they supposed to be career training, or life training?

Larry Sheldon said...

Well, I don't know what to make of what I have heard about this thing.

Learn wrong answers while in college?
Implies that "learn in college" is not an issue with respect to the right answers--the high schools must have taught it or something.

How about those of us who have not been to college, or have not been for a long time? (I got my BS in 1988 at age 50 or there abouts--I had been "going to college" a good lot of my life, but I never spent much time learning what was PC.)

(I go 80% by the way--2 were cases of me not reading the question correctly, a few were bad-guesses-after-weeding-out-wrong
and the right answer was the other choice left.

Several were just plain wrong.

But most of the ones I got right were "how could anybody not know that" kinds of things.

Anonymous said...

I got 91.5%. I have a BA in Hist, an MS in Ed, an MA in Mngmt and an MA in Hist. I am a high school drop out. Received my BA at age 36. I was surprised I didn't do a bit better. How do I account for my score? I have traveled quite a bit. I suspect LOTS of travel around the world helped. However, I have been an avid reader. That, I believe, is the critical deal. I wish I was more widely read, but I still haven't just read military history though that surely has been the most. I did 32 years in the Marines, both before the mast and aft, if you know what that means. I now instruct students at a community college. What they know is nearly zip. America's public schools are pretty awful. I could rant on about that, but it would take up far too much space.

I'm still disgruntled that I didn't do better.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

An excellent question, Bethany, which admits of many answers.

I like to start from the almost anthropological view that "societies teach their young what they (think they) need to know to be an adult in that context." That is true for 6th C Zulus and 13th C Walloons.

Under a citizen government, where all may vote but none must, there is a conflict: what the child needs to learn in order to thrive and what the society needs the child to learn in order for it to thrive are not necessarily identical. It would greatly benefit society for all its children to know how its economy works, what its defining values are, and how government works. But as this does not necessarily benefit the child directly, do we have the right to insist on his learning it? Teachers of the western canon would say yes - but so would the Soviets.

The cute logical contradictions - should we require children to learn that they don't have requirements - are actually quite serious questions. Things get even dicier when those entrusted with teaching have different answers than the society at large. What should government-supported schools, which take dollars from the society at large, teach? What constitutes government support?

As to the theoretical question of "what is the best education?" I am of at least three minds.

Anonymous said...

I imagine that there is a generation gap in the scores, with the parents doing better than the children, for a variety of reasons, such as further fragmentation of the curriculum and the PC imposition on both high school and college.
I got an engineering degree @ age 27, and agree that engineering students' course requirements would not help on such a test.
I got a 95.
The engineering curriculum leaves its students with a low tolerance for BS, which collides with the PC peple.

bs king said...

I see your point AVI, though the other point for discussion in there is "is college geared towards the training of children?". By college, most kids are legal adults, though they don't always act like it. They have already decided if they're voting or not, and also if they want to learn any more about their society. If it's in society's best interest to train college students in civics, then why not make businesses train employees too? Or at least state and federal employees? For as much as the stereotypical college student is fresh faced and 18, can you really impose requirements knowing that a decent chunk are going to be older, international, and otherwise there solely for career advancement?

Either way, at some point, you decide how much you want to know and retain. Like gringo, my engineering degree didn't teach me anything useful for that quiz, though I do feel it gave me a better appreciation for facts, and kept my intellectual curiosity level up. Had it not been for my own reading and learning post college though, my score would have been much much lower.

On another note, the quiz I really want to see is one given to the professors at these schools, specifically the poly sci profs. Now THOSE results would be interesting.

Assistant Village Idiot said...


Erin said...

good to know all those HUMA courses at GCC are doing some good. Just another chance for the administration to puff their chests a bit more.