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It’s time for America to beef up its history education

March 6, 2008
One reason so many young Americans may view Sen. Barack Obama as the “new JFK” may be that few of them know much about the real President John F. Kennedy. And it is likely that many people infuriated at the so-called “assault on personal liberties” during President Bush’s administration know little or nothing of periods during our history when freedoms truly were endangered or abridged.

Such lack of perspective is one reason why thoughtful Americans should be distressed at what seems to be a trend regarding knowledge of our nation’s history: As studies have indicated for several years, young people just don’t seem to know much about it. The same goes for basic economics, politics and other matters of which some knowledge is essential to make informed decisions regarding government.

A new investigation of the problem involved quizzes given to 14,000 students at 50 colleges and universities. They were asked to answer 60 multiple-choice questions on U.S. history, politics, international affairs and economics.

On average, college freshmen were able to get just 53.7 percent of the correct answers. Seniors managed only a slight improvement, to 55.4 percent.

The questions were not particularly difficult, in our judgment. One of typical difficulty, in our opinion, was:

The United Nations was organized in:

a) 1953 to combat the power of American corporations.

b) 1945 to promote “international organization.”

c) 1937 to deter the spread of Nazism.

d) 1968 to pursue nuclear disarmament.

e) 1961 to curtail global warming.

Easy, right? Wrong, for about one-third of the students tested. Just 61.7 percent of freshmen and 68.1 percent of seniors got the right answer (b).

Here’s one on economics:

The price of movie tickets has increased. According to the law of demand, what is likely to be the result?

a) Theaters will sell fewer tickets.

b) Theaters’ revenues will increase.

c) The quality of movie theaters will improve.

d) The number of videos rented will decrease.

e) Popcorn purchases at theaters will increase.

On that one, only 54.33 percent of freshmen and 59.67 percent of seniors got the right answer (a).

It is no wonder that so many Americans are willing to go along with demagogues — of all political parties — seeking public office. Their knowledge of matters addressed by the “trust me” crowd of candidates is so limited — if it exists at all — that they are incapable of making intelligent choices when they vote.

Too often, education policy makers regard only language arts, mathematics and science as “the basics” for students. Clearly, social studies needs to be added to the list.


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