February 2, 2007

History Profs Slam Report

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A recent University of Connecticut report on students’ knowledge of American history puts Cornell near the bottom of the heap, but history professors, rankled, are railing against the results.

“This is a crock,” said Prof. Mary Beth Norton, director of undergraduate studies in history. “A study like this happens once a decade. There is one like this from the ’20s, one from the ’40s, the ’50s and one from 10 years ago.”

Out of 50 colleges surveyed nationwide, Cornell ranked 48th in its ability to increase student knowledge of American history from freshman to senior year.

Cornell was not alone. Yale, Duke and Brown joined Cornell at the bottom of the list, though Harvard ranked in the middle at 25 and Princeton even higher, holding the 18th spot. Rhodes College, a private liberal arts school in Tennessee ranked first, while Johns Hopkins University came in dead last.

The study, which the University of Connecticut’s Public Policy Department conducted in the fall of 2005, asked more than 14,000 randomly selected college freshmen and seniors 60 multiple choice questions on topics ranging from America’s place in the world to the market economy.

Cornell freshmen received a mean score of 59.4 percent on historical knowledge, while seniors received an average of 56.1 percent, both failing grades.

Although Cornell ranked very low among the 50 schools, most seniors did quite poorly at all schools. In fact, the average senior at all schools surveyed scored below 70 percent. “[College] seniors lack basic knowledge of American history,” the report stated.

According to its website, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) commissioned the study to determine if “American higher education [is] preparing students for lives as informed and engaged citizens.”

The website continues, “Nearly all colleges and universities proclaim such a civic mission; few uphold it.”

For example, fewer than half of the seniors surveyed could identify, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” as a quote from the Declaration of Independence.

“An Ivy League education contributes nothing to a student’s civic learning,” the report concludes.

In fact, many top schools, including Cornell, demonstrated negative learning between freshman and senior year. ISI maintains that at these lower-performing schools, “[Students] will graduate with even less civic knowledge than what little they had as freshmen.”

Norton distanced herself from the notion that Cornell bears responsibility for the results. “At the college level people are supposed to follow what they want to follow … Our responsibility is to offer students classes. We are not an agency of the federal government,” she said.

Norton questioned the methods employed in the UConn study. She said even some historians would not be able to answer the questions.

“The questions are often so ambiguously worded, that I don’t know what the test makers thought was the proper answer,” Norton said.

So although more than half of the students surveyed could not identify the correct century during which the first American colony was established at Jamestown (the 17th) and 55.4 percent of students did not know which battle brought the American Revolution to an end (Yorktown), Norton explains this as a combination of tricky wording and lack of training in American topics past the middle school level.

Norton, who teaches early American history, said students in the United States do not study colonial history at all in high school, but only in middle school. Most high school history classes, she said, begin with the U.S. Constitution. Remembering colonial history as a senior in college can prove difficult for students.

Professor Laurence Moore, acting chair of the history department, echoed Norton’s sentiments in an e-mail.

“As a historian, I of course think that Cornell students ought to know something about history. But then I think that they ought to know something about a lot of things. History is one part of a liberal arts education, but only one part,” he wrote.