Lack of history knowledge among college students tested and true

By Lisa Knych

In the article “FDR was president during which war?” USA Today columnist Daniel Burnett writes about the shortcomings of our country’s educational system. In a survey done by the American Council of Trustees, only 60 percent of American adults knew Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president during World War II.

Burnett said, “Even among college graduates, the situation isn’t much better: after spending tens of thousands of dollars on a college education, more than one in four college graduates still don’t know FDR was president during World War II.”

Burnett said our education system is to blame for this lack of knowledge because many colleges allow students to skip American history courses. At Michigan’s Oakland University, a student can swap American history with “Foundations of Rock,” “Dance in American Culture” or “Human Sexuality.” At the University of California-Berkeley, the requirement can be replaced with “Dutch Culture and Society: Amsterdam and Berkeley in the Sixties” and at the University of Colorado, American history can be replaced with “America through Baseball,” “Horror Films in American Culture” or even “Wops and Dons to Movers and Shakers: The Italian-American Experience.”

Burnett said: “Let’s be clear about the consequences. These students leave college civically disempowered, too ignorant to understand how our institutions of government work and how we arrived at the policies and challenges we have today.”

After reading this article, I was shocked by what Burnett said and I decided to put his theory to the test. I surveyed 10 Dominican students and asked them 10 American history facts.

The questions are as follows:

  1. What year was the Declaration of Independence signed?
  2. Who was the 16th president of the United States?
  3. The Great Depression started in what year?
  4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president during which war?
  5. Pearl Harbor happened on which day? (include year)
  6. What year was John F. Kennedy assassinated?
  7. What year was Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated?
  8. Who assassinated Abraham Lincoln?
  9. Which president was the only one to resign from office?
  10. Who was the 44th president of the United States?

Unfortunately, Burnett was right. Only half of the students I asked knew that FDR was president during WWII and there were questions with even fewer correct answers. Not one person knew when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated but 90 percent knew that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president.

In his column, Burnett explained the importance of knowing our history facts: “This is a problem we are inflicting on ourselves and it can have real consequences for the future. It may not be crucial for students to memorize every line of the Declaration of Independence or list the dates of every battle during World War II, but if they don’t know the underlying significance of these events, they will neither understand the present nor be ready for the future.”

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