Lack of Civics

There's been a push recently to measure college outcomes. One recent test showed that American colleges are failing spectacularly, especially in terms of teaching history and civics.

For the past five years, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has
tried to measure how well colleges and universities do in giving their
students a basic understanding of America's core history, key texts,
and enduring political and economic institutions.

The results aren't pretty.

Half
of the 14,000 incoming freshmen tested failed the 60-question
multiple-choice test, getting just half the questions right. Worse,
they barely know any more when they graduate, with seniors scoring 54
percent correct. No school, not even Harvard or Yale, got above a 69
percent average among seniors. Worse still, in some schools, students
did worse coming out than going in.

Civics How do students actually get dumber while they're at school? OK. Don't answer that. I know why.

Actually, the schools that performed the worst on this test were elite colleges.

My dad sent me this link along with some sarcastic remarks about Harvard professors who just spew on and on about irrelevant research or don't show up to class at all.

I'm not sure about these findings. I suspect that there are some politics involved, but I thought I would pass this info along.

UPDATE: Apparently, ISI is a conservative organization. Tim Burke explains.

Quick thoughts:

– Evaluating college education is HUGE topic right now. At my last university, there were many committees and meetings aimed at creating tests of student knowledge. Colleges are under pressure to demonstrate they are providing students with an education. There is, however, little consensus about what they should be teaching.

– I always taught my introductory sections with the idea that 90% of the students would never take  another political science class. So, I went heavy on democratic theory, the importance of participation, and basic knowledge of government. I'm not sure that I was typical.

– Most students aren't taking political science or history classes anymore. If they're enrolled in business or professional schools, there are limited opportunities to take those classes. Also, schools are pulling down the old liberal arts requirements, because of pressures from other departments. So, it's not entirely surprising that students can't answer questions about the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

48 thoughts on “Lack of Civics

  1. “How do students actually get dumber while they’re at school? OK. Don’t answer that. I know why.”
    I took a fantastic AP US history course in high school and then didn’t have to take any history in college (aside from bits of history of science that showed up in non-history courses). I can totally understand how you could wind up knowing less history at the end of college than when you go in.

  2. There are no requirements for American history or politics in any of the universities I’ve had experience with (two ivies, one large private). I think that pretty much explains it–if you don’t require it, do you expect people to take it? Sure there’s a history/tradition requirement at Cornell, but why not get a two-fer by doing South American archeology, ancient China, or the cultural history of Judaism? (Grabbing the “non-Western civ” requirement as well.) If you want to improve or explain these outcomes for Harvard, Yale, etc. requirements would be the first place to look.
    (My friends in American history tend to complain about their students having attitudes, although I think they’re mental blocks: that of course, all of the students know this stuff already. I tend to have more but China is hard, how an you expect us to learn this? attitudes from my students.)

  3. I’m pretty much completely unworried about this at the college level. My guess is that this is mostly stuff people should learn in high-school, if it’s important to learn at all. Spending time on it, or requiring it, in college, unless it’s one’s area of specialization, seems like a waste of time and resources. I’m not opposed to general education requirements, and think it’s often a good thing that US colleges are less specialized early on than most European systems, but this particular worry seems not very important to me. (I suspect that students in most other countries would do as bad or worse as well.)

  4. In Canada I can attest to the fact that learning about Canada’s core history, etc. is not a university or college educational goal. If you major in chemistry there are breadth requirements, but the choices are broad.

  5. “Of course there’s a lot of knowledge in universities: the freshmen bring a little in; the seniors don’t take much away, so knowledge sort of accumulates.”
    I presume this is the explanation our hostess is thinking of, for how students get dumber at college.

  6. In addition to students having more recently taken an American history course right out of high school, they’re also more likely to be used to taking multiple-choice exams. (I had virtually none of them in college- because went to a good school.)

  7. Agree with the comments above mentioning “requirements”. Also, almost all the schools on the second list are East coast junior-ivy-type schools: kids going to that class of university often received very good educations before college, at their private prep schools. (The kids didn’t get into their first choice Ivy).
    My own experience with small private colleges is it’s difficult to get in, but once there, no one gets a grade lower than a B. (As opposed to the giant R1 public university that gave Ds and Fs to over 20%). I could imagine getting *dumber* in that environment. Drinking, not going to class, squandering your expensive prep school education, then taking your Art History degree to Wall Street and getting your six figure entitlement.
    Fourth-tier colleges accept lots of people who barely, barely have the minimum reading, writing and arithmetic skills. It’s easier to improve such students.

  8. I have students in a *science* class do mock Congressional or Senate hearings about tabled Science and natural-resource legislation that I dredge up on various dot-gov sites. They do seem to have a rather ‘Schoolhouse Rock’** level of understanding of how legislation gets done, which may reflect the tendency of science students to take less history or poli sci, but maybe that’s why they seem to handle the assignment relatively well.
    ** “I’m just a bill, here on Capitol Hill…”

  9. I taught a US history course at night at a small local college for three semesters, and there was remarkable resistance by the students to learning any of the material. They chose the class because it met a requirement and fit their schedule, but most of them seemed convinced that the material and methods had no professional relevance. My chair also pointed out that many of the students (most of whom had been in the workforce for some time after high school) associated history classes with the most odious parts of their high-school experience. The chair called this the curse of the football coach, the stereotypical high-school history teacher at too many schools (in my chair’s opinion, anyway).
    Don’t get me wrong, I was still learning how to break through that resistance in my third semester of teaching. Better-qualified instructors might have had more success (although for $1800 a semester, good luck finding them). I’m not blaming the students for my poor teaching.
    But whoa, was it discouraging to try to teach US history to people who thought the whole enterprise (the facts and the methods, because believe me, I tried to show them that the methods at least would serve them well) was a complete waste of time, and could not believe any argument to the contrary.

  10. The chair called this the curse of the football coach, the stereotypical high-school history teacher at too many schools (in my chair’s opinion, anyway).
    Both of my high school history teachers were coaches (football and basketball) and both were fine. The football coach was better than the basketball coach.

  11. I’m not a poli-sci or history professor. But I absolutely canNOT understand why anything that isn’t a specialized/graduate-level course in these areas would be taught in any other way than project-based/hands-on/experiential learning. A colleague of mine teaches American government, and she feels her students are bored. I hate telling people in real life how to do their jobs, but here online, I have no problem with that.šŸ™‚ Find a way politics/government affects their lives negatively and then make them figure out all the pieces and how, because they are in a democracy, they can try to change things. And then get into the question of why the US is this way.
    History I would teach backwards. Open up the newspaper, point to someone like Newt Gingrich or Nancy Pelosi, and start there.

  12. To Wendy’s comment above, I’ve seen some great teachers at the high school level have students learn about all the various levels of government by having them apply for a license of some kind–marriage, fishing, hunting. And she does other kinds of cool projects where students have to go to city council meetings, follow a bill through Congress, etc.
    Anyway, since my alma mater topped the list–and also shows up in the top 50 schools that change lives, ahem–I recall learning civics/history/government in nearly all my classes. We had a three semester long (I think, or maybe just two) western civ course. We started with the Greeks and Romans and went all the way to the present. I regularly learned history in my literature classes, and I took International Studies classes, where I actually read the Monroe doctrine and the U.S. policy on foreign aid. In those classes, I was required to subscribe to the Christian Science Monitor. And I actually read it. In Economics, we didn’t just learn the fundamentals of supply and demand, but we also talked about things like universal health care, from an economic and political point of view. We talked about Paul Tsongas.
    Besides having these things discussed across the curriculum, the school has always been very involved in the civic life around it. It’s surrounded by a rather failing neighborhood, though it goes up and down. Students regularly engage in civic projects locally and abroad. I, myself, participated in my first protests–apartheid/divestment followed by protesting the tearing down of the Lorraine Hotel. And, I worked for the school paper, where one of my first gigs was to go hear George H. W. Bush’s speech on his “Thousand Points of Light” program.
    I think there’s something about these small, scrappy schools that makes their students pretty scrappy, too. The article is wrong about the cost, though. Rhodes may not cost as much as Harvard, but tuition, room, and board will run you over $40k, about double what it was when I was there. But their alums are loyal and give generously, often for scholarships, of which there are quite a few. I had one that I was grateful for.
    And, I would definitely recommend the place, obviously.

  13. “Both of my high school history teachers were coaches (football and basketball) and both were fine. The football coach was better than the basketball coach.”
    I had a terrible Biology II/basketball coach, a dweeby fellow who spent much of class chatting with his players. He’d just sort of turn us loose on the labs. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing during those labs, which at least in my case, were a total waste of specimen animals. I suspect that the best part of that class was the time we spent watching science videos.
    Speaking of value added, I just saw a car in a college parking lot where someone had written “looser–Clayton” in the dust. Wendy, may I suggest a project-based approach to improving campus graffiti?

  14. “And she does other kinds of cool projects where students have to go to city council meetings, follow a bill through Congress, etc.”
    Now that I think about it, I did actually do a bunch of civics stuff in my college reporting class. Our professor (an LA Times guy named George Ramos who I see from google is a Pulitzer prize winner) assigned us neighborhoods (I got East LA), had us collect copies of police reports for extra credit (illegal, apparently, which was the point of the exercise), look up voter registration of various persons, get Judge Wapner’s address, get Ramos’s phone number, attend LA city council meetings, go to trials, etc. Pre-internet, that class was a huge time suck that might involve cutting your other classes for a week, because you had to actually physically go out and traverse the vast expanses of Los Angeles to go to the various places that housed public records. I’m sure it’s totally different now.

  15. I’m not a poli-sci or history professor. But I absolutely canNOT understand why anything that isn’t a specialized/graduate-level course in these areas would be taught in any other way than project-based/hands-on/experiential learning.
    I always found that type of stuff annoying. If dry facts don’t get attention, then you should try a song.

  16. I took a fantastic AP US history course in high school and then didn’t have to take any history in college (aside from bits of history of science that showed up in non-history courses). I can totally understand how you could wind up knowing less history at the end of college than when you go in.
    I went to the number one listed negative value school and pretty much did the same thing. A lot more people take US history classes in high school than college. I do think there is value added, but you have to test what people studied.

  17. The other thing about hopkins is that a lot of people who would otherwise study political science tended to study international relations instead.

  18. So maybe what this all means is that high school deserves a lot more credit than it usually gets–it tends to get treated purely as a gateway to college, rather than as an end to itself. It seems like the good parts of high school can set you up for life in a way that’s not as possible in the college setting. In high school, you get to approach subjects in a more leisurely manner and you have to pick and choose from a more limited class list than college, which makes it easier to create a coherent knowledge base, rather than the sort of interesting potpourri of bits of this and bits of that that one tends to carry away from undergraduate study. (Not that I wasn’t very eager to leave high school myself.)

  19. “Wendy, may I suggest a project-based approach to improving campus graffiti?”
    We actually have a project in that category (trash in the school yard). This is for my advanced writing class that is doing community service at a local middle school.

  20. Hey, I scored 75.76 percent on the Civic Literacy Report linked to from the article. Pretty good for a Canadian, eh?

  21. Kudos, Nancy.
    FWIW, I had switched away from lectures to project-based instruction by my third semester. I spent hours putting together those projects, which at some level was great fun, and at some level was really irritating (because my per-hour wage just kept dropping). How much difference did it make? If classroom reviews were to be trusted, not much.
    Project-based instruction is more fun to prep, I’ll grant you that.
    95% of the people I met, who were going back to school at night to get bachelors degrees, were very instrumental in their thinking. Accounting classes: worthwhile. Humanities classes? A big snow job on the part of the administration. I left that job wondering if they were right.
    I had fantastic history/social studies teachers in high school. One of them had a PhD and ran the local women’s history center. She was married to the track coach, who was my civics teacher.

  22. I scored 96.97 % — whew.
    I was struck by how many economics questions there were. In my high school, economics was an elective. I had to take four semesters of economics at Georgetown, but that was because I was in the School of Foreign Service. One year of that was international trade and finance. (Parochially speaking, I’d love to see the Georgetown breakdown between Foreign Service, Business, Nursing, and College undergrads.)

  23. “If classroom reviews were to be trusted, not much.”
    But how much info did they retain? This, to me, is the data we’re not collecting in education (K-12 and higher ed).

  24. I was struck by how many economics questions there were.
    Yes, and some of them were pretty ideological. As it turns out, this is put out by a right-wing leaning group, one of the sort to use this sort of thing to show how it’s all been down hill since whenever. That’s fine- but some of these questions (ones that require you to have read and largely believe Hayek, for example) are not just facts and figures.

  25. I strongly suspect that the reason there were the economics questions, and to some extent the reason they were phrased the way they were, is that this quiz was put together by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which has a very conservative, free-market- oriented ideology.
    And the question about Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Aquinas, while not difficult for someone who knows a bit of the history of ideas or philosophy, has only an indirect connection to the supposed subject of the quiz: America’s core institutions, etc.
    Having said all that, and not to sound elitist, but I think a good argument can be made that a reasonably well-educated person, even going through this quiz fairly quickly, should not get more than 2 wrong (or at most, 3).
    I don’t really fully understand the “lost ground” stuff: I guess you can enter college knowing, e.g., what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about and have forgotten that information four years later, but it seems to me somewhat unlikely. On the other hand, I guess many of us have done “data dumps” of one kind or another, so perhaps it’s not so surprising.

  26. Another point on the group that did the survey is that their ideology may have affected students’ willingness to participate. I know when I was in college I would have been suspicious of anything like this, and likely to ask a few questions to try to figure out their agenda before I committed myself to doing the quiz.
    Also, the online version of the quiz has some very dumb questions. I am a passionate advocate for people understanding how our government works, but it’s absurd to think it matters whether they know if the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion or right to counsel.
    Sure, we should know our rights. But knowing which one belongs to which amendment? Really? I’d much rather a young person be able to say what the right to counsel is and why it is/isn’t important.
    That might actually help them in present-day controversies such as “Should immigrants be entitled to public defenders?” (Right now, for immigration violations, they’re not — because those are civil, not criminal violations, so there is no right to counsel.)

  27. My favorite question of theirs was “what year did World War II start?” and none of the choices were remotely correct as WWII started either in 1941 (when two different wars became one war) or 1931 (with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria starting one of the two wars mentioned above). Their correct answer was 1939 which can’t be right because, although it is the beginning of the war in Europe, the Asian war predates it and it is before the two wars became one truly global conflagration.

  28. “My favorite question of theirs was “what year did World War II start?” and none of the choices were remotely correct as WWII started either in 1941 (when two different wars became one war) or 1931 (with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria starting one of the two wars mentioned above). Their correct answer was 1939 which can’t be right because, although it is the beginning of the war in Europe, the Asian war predates it and it is before the two wars became one truly global conflagration.”
    I’m sure the start of WWII is debatable, but 1939 is a pretty conventional choice for the date.

  29. Yes Amy, but it’s wrong. And in multiple choice questions, you don’t get debatable you get right or wrong. And a student who took a history course in college should know that it’s wrong (hell my h.s. students know it’s wrong). It just shows the fallacy of this type of “what I learned in college test.” The best answer available was 1937, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, but that would have been marked incorrect. The answer on my test is “it depends on who you ask.” but that means I’m a postmodernist relativist filling kids’ heads with fluff instead of the facts they should know — even if they’re the wrong facts. In other words, this was a bogus exercise to make a political point: don’t trust experts, college professors are overly politicized filling heads with pc crap, etc. etc.. Or even more simply, “ISI – even when we are wrong, we’re right.”

  30. W. Dave, 1939 is usually considered the correct answer and not just by ISI. The convention is well supported. It is debatable, but it is not arbitrary, and 1939 has what I consider to be the stronger argument.
    …1931 (with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria
    The invasions which Japan, Italy, and Germany undertook prior to 1939 were no more a World War than any of the dozens of other wars in which one of the great powers decided to attack somebody weaker in another part of the world. Excepting the responses of the other significant powers, these are not sufficient conditions for “World War” nor are they necessary.
    Their correct answer was 1939 which can’t be right because, although it is the beginning of the war in Europe, the Asian war predates it and it is before the two wars became one truly global conflagration.
    No. In 1939, adding the U.K., especially adding France at the same time, is sufficient to make a global conflagration. Anyway, excepting the U.S., the Asian war and the “European war” were never linked very strongly at all. Japan received no help from and coordinated nothing with Germany or Italy. The U.K. and France were hardly involved except in the sense of losing very quickly. The U.S.S.R. never started until after the matter was solved.
    Even if Japan had decided to skip ahead 60 years and do nothing more dangerous than sell “Hello Kitty” products, it was still a world war and it would have been fought on a broader theater than WW I. The U.K. pulled significant resources from five continents other than Europe, the U.S.S.R from two.
    In IR and history, they talk of Great Power Wars and or similar concepts. The conflicts of the 1930s did not become a Great Power War (defined as one power fighting another power) until September 3, 1939 when the U.K. and France declared war on Germany.
    (hell my h.s. students know it’s wrong).
    Yes, high school teachers are big on that kind of argument. If you are trying to get kids to learn facts, it probably helps. But it does little for you when you are trying to learn about the pattern of history or hegemonic war in general.

  31. The U.K. pulled significant resources from five continents other than Europe
    I confused myself trying to decide between writing “five continents” or “four continents other than Europe.” The U.K. didn’t have much for resources in South America or Antartica.

  32. MH,
    Except of course, that Japan attacked British, French, and Dutch colonial possessions as well as the US during WWII and eventually even the USSR jumped in to the Asian war (albeit in the last week). Japan and Germany may not have coordinated attacks, but Japan’s pressure on India was vital to German strategy. Further, if we undesrtand WW II as a war for hegemony than 1939 still doesn’t work. If WWII is a hegemonic war, than it is a war for hegemony over two spheres, the Atlantic and Pacific with Germany seeking to become hegemonic in the Atlantic and Japan hegemonic in the Pacific. Now I suppose you could say 1905 was the starting point, or as Doug Brinkley argues, the Great White Fleet tour, which scared the hell out of Japan, but I think we have to allow some room for contingency into the question. The fact remains that 1939 may be the conventional answer but it’s not a very good one and not one accepted by most Diplomatic Historians or Historians of American Foreign Relations. Why am I confident of that? Because I learned it in my Diplomatic History seminar with Brad Perkins at University of Michigan doing my PhD in 20th century US History. Leading lights in the field such as Harvard Professor Akiria Iriye have been making this argument for forty years now and what was once revisionist has now become the standard argument. Which is ISI’s point, taking a class with Iriye will make you dumber because you will learn that WWII did not start in 1939, when of course, everybody knows it did. Therefore, professors = teh stoopid.
    I meant to note, but I think the comment got lost, that this was a publicly released question from last year’s test not this year’s. One wonders if they realized that they blew it, or if they just rotate which questions they release.

  33. Except of course, that Japan attacked British, French, and Dutch colonial possessions as well as the US during WWII and eventually even the USSR jumped in to the Asian war (albeit in the last week).
    The fact that you mention the Dutch in with the British and French sort of supports my point of “hardly involved except in the sense of losing very quickly.” They lost and the Pacific became an American War to all intents and purposes. Australia was exporting troops to other fronts, not receiving help from Britian. And I think “The U.S.S.R. never started until after the matter was solved” is a perfectly accurate description of Soviet actions in the Pacific.
    Japan and Germany may not have coordinated attacks, but Japan’s pressure on India was vital to German strategy.
    And Japan wouldn’t have been nearly as aggressive if Britian wasn’t occupied in Europe. So what? The Soviets invaded places thinking, correctly, that nobody would take any real action because everybody was afraid of the Germans.
    Now I suppose you could say 1905 was the starting point
    I would say the starting point was either 1914 (that is, WW I never really ended) or 1939.
    Because I learned it in my Diplomatic History seminar with Brad Perkins at University of Michigan doing my PhD in 20th century US History.
    I am required, for sound alumni reasons, to point out that Michigan sucks.
    Which is ISI’s point, taking a class with Iriye will make you dumber because you will learn that WWII did not start in 1939, when of course, everybody knows it did. Therefore, professors = teh stoopid.
    It is a view that I’ve been warming to since this morning.

  34. I am not particularly fond of the education undergrads get at Big 10 schools either. But after Wisconsin and maybe Minnesota what is there for graduate history departments? And for the record, Cronon wasn’t at Wisconsin yet so Michigan seemed like a good bet at the time.
    Brad trained most of the Diplomatic Historians at the other Big 10 schools, and those that he didn’t were trained by either LaFeber or Graebner, or Cohen or Iriye or one of their students so it really doesn’t matter which Big 10 school you went to, if you went in the last 30 years, and you took a course on WWII, you would have learned how to put the World into World War II and not just think of it as a European conflict with Japan thrown in at the last minute.
    If you are really interested in this, go read the relevant works first esp. Iriye’s stuff on the Pacific world.
    BTW’s, I’m OK with 1918 being a good starting place for WWII not the least of which because it convinced the Japanese to end their alliance with England and convinced them that they would have to seize possessions by force after they got gypped out of mandates. I still think it has the same contingency problem as 1905, not the least of which is that I’m under the impression that the Wiemar Republic actually solved many of their economic problems before the election of the NDSP, but I’ll have to defer to somebody who actually works on Wiemar Germany for the details on that. Further, I seem to remember reading that as late as 37 or 38, it was unclear even to Hitler himself, much less the German military, that he would actually take on Britain and France much less those two and the Soviets all at once. But again, German national history is really not my thing.
    Incidentally, the conventional wisdom among AFR types(Gar Alperovitz excepted) is now that the Japanese High command would absolutely not have surrendered without the dropping of both atomic bombs. Recently (1990s) opened Japanese archives make clear that the Japanese officer class that was running the state since the Manchurian incident absolutely refused to surrender and that even after the first bomb, several key players refused to believe that the first bomb was actually one bomb. It took the second bomb, and the foiling of a last minute attempt to assassinate the emperor(!) to effect the surrender.

  35. I went in Poli Sci, not history. Speaking of Michigan, the COW people are based there and they say WW II ran from 1939 to 1945. See here. They use the perfectly adequate name Sino-Japanese War for what happened before in the Pacific.
    I’ve read LeFeber (and a great many Cohen’s but probably not the one you mention). It has been a while, but I understand how very complicated the situation was in the 1930s. Yes, Weimar solved many economic problems before the election of the Nazi’s (I’ve also read Shirer and more scholarly works). I’m fully appreciative of the unique achievement represented by Japan’s rapid modernization and how shitactular life was in China before the start of WW II.
    My points are two fold, should you care to take this up.
    1. Because of the weakness of China, Japan vs. China could not a “World War” make. It was basically a colonial war. If Japan had attacked the U.S. or Britain or France or the U.S.S.R. before Britain and France declared war on Germany, I would argue that would be the date of the start of WW II. No question. But they didn’t. Japan vs. China (the China of the 1930s) isn’t considered the start of WW II for the same reason Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia wasn’t. There was only one significant power in the war.
    2. If you try to teach undergraduate non-majors, even at elite schools, that WW II started at some arguable point between 1918 and 1941, you are far more likely to wind-up with kids who can’t place the start of the war at all than you are with kids who appreciate the complexity of diplomatic and military history. Also, nearly all of those who appreciate the complexity of diplomatic and military history will know that 1939 is the answer they are supposed to give on a general knowledge test. At work, I use terms like “lateral patella,” but I’m aware enough to say “outside of the knee” when I’m talking to somebody else.

  36. The COW are political scientists: the have the Spanish American War lasting only one year, no reference at all to the subsequent US conquest of the Phillipines, and count Texas independence as a colonial war? And not a single US Indian War in the list? And I’m supposed to treat these guys like authorities on war?
    And my job is teach people how to think not what to think. If you want to win the argument, you control the terms of debate. When did WWII start is a good question for that exercise because it depends on what your criteria are for what counts as being part of WWII. And if you want to show that college makes people dumber, you ask them a bunch of seemingly simple questions like “when did World War II start?”

  37. the have the Spanish American War lasting only one year, no reference at all to the subsequent US conquest of the Philippines, and count Texas independence as a colonial war? And not a single US Indian War in the list?
    The Spanish American War did last one year. The conquest of the Philippines was fought against a different opponent and does not qualify as an interstate war by their standards. (Not that it was ignored. It is covered in the Extra-State Wars data.) The Indian Wars are covered in the Intra-State Wars dataset.
    And the the war for Texas’s independence was a colonial war if you ask the Mexicans.
    At a certain point, you have to draw some lines or WW II becomes just another flare-up of the long-running “Now that I can make a pointy rock, I’m not taking shit from Ugg” War.

  38. It would be very wonderful if students who got the wrong answer on the question “When did World War II begin?” were wrong because they had a profound knowledge of the ongoing Asian conflicts of the 1930s. But, come on, be serious, there is not a single person in the world who would get this question wrong for that reason.

  39. 1. ISI has a very strong conservative agenda, and I have to say I can see it in some of the questions. The economics ones have been mentioned, and ditto to the point that classical Greek philosophy is less important to American institutions than the standard conservative understanding of the rise of the West would typically assert. If you’d insist that certain political philosophy is key to understanding civics in America, I’d turn to Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau before the Greeks. Or just stick with the homegrown folks, who were a pretty fair hand with political philosophy. Etc.
    I also think that there are some “wrong” answers which don’t concern me at all. Say, for example, a misremembering of what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about–because certainly the *subtext* was slavery.
    I also just dislike these kinds of literacy quizzes because they tend to suggest that some kind of literacy is now disappearing or threatened but was present in the past, when there’s often no baseline information that makes that a safe assertion. Nor do they tend to have a very fully realized idea about why this literacy actually matters, what will happen if it is more widespread.
    Here’s what I couldn’t tell looking through the materials at ISI quickly: 14,000 college freshmen take it, but how are they selected? I doubt Cornell or Yale or many of these insitutions allow ISI to just administer the test to incoming freshmen and outgoing seniors on an open basis. Did they actually go to these campuses and random sample? Or did their associated faculty administer the test, with all the potential skewing that might involve? Can anybody see what the procedure is? (They do have a section on the sampling for the national version.)

  40. y81
    Oh there are lots of people who would get that question wrong for that reason. All of our students at my school that take the AP History tests are told, “don’t think” for the multiple choice section and they still have trouble, often out-thinking themselves (and the test-makers). Same thing here, “1939 is there as a decoy, it’s too obvious, so the right answer must be 1941 when two separate wars became one war when Japan (roughly) simultaneously attacked U.S., UK, and NEI. But if they’d meant American entry they’d have said it, but why isn’t 1937 (or 1918 or other favorite date here) a choice, what the hell are they getting at?” Because, if those kids were writing the test, they would never put a question that dumb on it so it must be a trick. And when they took the test in class, the question was “What year did WWII, defend your choice using evidence.”

  41. “1939 is there as a decoy, it’s too obvious, so the right answer must be 1941 when two separate wars became one war when Japan (roughly) simultaneously attacked U.S., UK, and NEI. But if they’d meant American entry they’d have said it, but why isn’t 1937 (or 1918 or other favorite date here) a choice, what the hell are they getting at?”
    I did know people like that in graduate school. It filled me with questions about how well our current meritocracy was at picking people and a strong desire to chew tobacco in class.

  42. Thanks for pointing out the political agenda of ISI. I never heard of them before, but I suspected that there was an agenda. Quick thoughts:
    – Evaluating college education is HUGE topic right now. At my last university, there were many committees and meetings aimed at creating tests of student knowledge. Colleges are under pressure to demonstrate they are providing students with an education. There is, however, little consensus about what they should be teaching.
    – I always taught my introductory sections with the idea that 90% of the students would never take another political science class. So, I went heavy on democratic theory, the importance of participation, and basic knowledge of government. I’m not sure that I was typical.
    – Most students aren’t taking political science or history classes anymore. If they’re enrolled in business or professional schools, there are limited opportunities to take those classes. Also, schools are pulling down the old liberal arts requirements, because of pressures from other departments.

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