ON THE SOAPBOX:
It’s Not That College Students Are Stupid; They’re Willfully Ignorant
The National Association of Scholars recently released the results of a little test, in which today’s college seniors were asked 15 questions to assess their general cultural knowledge.
The results were terrifying, but not unexpected: Today’s college seniors know slightly less than those who were high school graduates in 1955, 53.5 percent vs. 54.5 percent, and way less than college seniors of 1955, 53.5 percent vs. 77.3 percent.
Every day, in my community college classroom, I ask for discussion on cultural issues. It is rare if even one of my students can respond. I usually have to give them the information they need—teach them the pertinent history—in order for them to consider it. Few know anything about the 20th century. They’ve never heard of Herbert Hoover; don’t know Ike or LBJ. I mentioned something about the Bay of Pigs invasion. One student ventured, “Wasn’t that in the 1800s?”
Fewer still know what Thomas Jefferson was famous for. They know he slept with one of his slaves, but they don’t know he was the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence.
They know that the Civil War was about slavery, but have no knowledge of the cultural separation between North and South—and that it still exists.
More than half of my classes believe—even though we’ve discussed it to the contrary—that America is a collectivist society. They don’t understand the concept of individual rights, yet alone about individual responsibility to the whole.
The women in my classes were surprised that women didn’t have the right to vote until 1922, and they didn’t know why a coat hanger is the symbol of the pro-choice movement.
Every one of us, every once in awhile, is stupid. We turn right when we should have turned left. We say the wrong thing at the wrong time. We accuse when we should excuse.
And when it happens, we simply say without any shame, “Well, wasn’t I stupid.” But ignorance...this kind of ignorance is another matter.
None of us has to be ignorant. If we didn’t get the information in school, to get the information we need we can read a book, consult a website, watch the History Channel.
My students don’t do this. They aren’t interested.
This concerns me. And I think it should concern you.
When we are graduating kids from high school and college who have no knowledge about the history of their country, when citizens have no idea what it means to be a citizen, is it any wonder that we have crime, drugs and general lawbreaking?
The old school year is over. Teachers and students have put away their books for a time, and September is part of the future. Now is the time for us to prepare a new future for our kids.
We need to teach them, in school and at home, about the country they live in. We need them to understand that this country was founded not just on individual freedom but on individual responsibility, and that the country doesn’t work without it.
We need to show them by example that good citizenship means obeying speed limits, not littering—and even helping old ladies across the street.
But we also need to make them understand that without dissent, there is fascism. We need to get a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and discuss what we find there. We need to put ourselves above propaganda and flag waving and tell the truth, so that our children will stop being ignorant.
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This story was published on July 12, 2003.