May 16, 2001: On the Campus

Condemned to repeat it

Ignorance of history is common, even at Princeton

by Alex Rawson '01
illustration by Ron Barrett

A year ago, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) issued a report condemning the “historical illiteracy” of college students, claiming that today’s college seniors had barely better than 50 percent knowledge of high-school level American history. The organization surveyed 556 seniors at the top 55 American liberal arts colleges and major universities, asking 34 basic history questions, and found that the average score was a disturbing 53 percent. For the following Fourth of July weekend, the New York Times picked up the story with patriotic alarm, printing the survey and an explanation that the uninformed students included some at Harvard, Princeton, and Brown. I clipped the article, vowing to test the survey at Princeton and hoping to clear Princeton of the charge of historical ignorance.

Nine months later, after surveying 43 students from all four classes and from a wide range of academic departments, these are my highly informal (and admittedly statistically invalid) findings. The good news is that we appear better than the national average, correctly answering an average of 73 percent of the questions (25 out of 34); the bad news is that although we are better than most, all is still not right. The lowest score was an embarrassing 15 out of 34, another student correctly answered only 16 questions, and several other students were clustered nearby. But what is most interesting is what exactly we did not know.

Fourteen students — nearly a third — did not know that the Federalist Papers had been intended to gain ratification of the U.S. Constitution; another nine failed to identify the Constitution as the document that established the division of powers between the states and the federal government. Sixteen students could not connect John Marshall with Marbury v. Madison, and the same number could not identify George Washington as the American general at Yorktown — particularly astonishing given that none of the other choices (Sherman, Grant, and MacArthur) were even alive during the American Revolution. Eight students incorrectly thought that Lincoln had been president between 1840 and 1860. More than half of those surveyed picked Jefferson rather than James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.” And in some ways most embarrassingly, five students, while well in the minority, could not identify John Adams as the second president of the U.S., or Italy and Japan as Germany’s allies during World War II. All of these questions are central to American history, and many, particularly those about the Constitution, are crucial background to understanding American citizenship.

Civic participation depends to some extent on knowledge of the founding principles of the Republic, and therefore the results of this survey raise questions about the structure of higher education today. Some would argue that in this technologically driven age the concept of the liberal arts education is obsolete. If we believe that, then this history survey does not matter. If, on the other hand, we believe that the purpose of higher education is at least in part to develop an informed citizenry, then the concept of a liberal arts education is not obsolete at all. In that case, liberal arts institutions across the country, Princeton included, need to do a better job of teaching American history to all students.

Princeton requires that students take only one “historical analysis” course before graduating. It does not even have to be a course in the history department, and it certainly does not have to cover American history. But perhaps it should. Why not require two history classes, one of them American and one of them not? In this era of globalization, that can be a difficult argument to make — but global understanding should build on rather than replace national identity. We cannot afford to lose sight of our own heritage, because our place in the world is based upon it. But if the history survey is right, we are in danger, even at Princeton, of misplacing at least part of that heritage —and are therefore in danger of forgetting what our role in the world has been and can be.

Alex Rawson ( is a history major who wrote his thesis on Abraham Lincoln.

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