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Poll: College Students Ignorant of History; NEH Urges Curricula Change

October 9, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Many college students don’t know when the Civil War occurred or what the Magna Carta was, according to a Gallup Poll being cited in a call for colleges and universities to revise curricula.

Too many students are graduating from college without knowing ″basic landmarks of history and thought,″ Lynne V. Cheney, chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said in releasing the poll Sunday.

Part of the problem is that upon entering college, students ″often find few requirements in place and a plethora of offerings,″ she said.

Cheney issued a new report that offers colleges and universities a study plan of 50 hours in five basic areas of knowledge, including foreign language, mathematics, science and civilization.

The booklet has drawn both criticism as running a risk of ″dangerous superficiality‴ and praise for mirroring the efforts of some higher education institutions.

At many colleges, she said, ″There are hundreds of courses to choose from, a multitude of ways to combine them to earn a bachelor’s degree, and a minimum of direction.″ Some students do well with such choices, ″but others move through college years with little rationale,″ she said.

The Gallup Organization survey found that 24 percent of the college seniors surveyed thought Christopher Columbus landed in the Western Hemisphere for the first time after 1500, 42 percent could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century and 58 percent did not know that Shakespeare was the author of ″The Tempest.″

Also, the survey showed 55 percent could not identify the Magna Carta and 23 percent believed that Karl Marx’s phrase, ″From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,″ is part of the U.S. Constitution.

According to the survey, 39 percent of the college seniors failed the 49- question history section. On the 38-question section devoted to literature, 68 percent of the students failed.

The Gallup survey of 696 seniors was conducted between April 4 and April 27, using a self-administered test booklet. The participating students attend 67 four-year American colleges and universities, both public and private.

Cheney, in the booklet, urges trustees and administrators to support faculty members who are working to strengthen general education requirements.

The proposed core curriculum suggested five basic areas of knowledge:

-Cultures and civilizations: three-hour courses each of the origins of civilization and American civilizations; two semesters of western civilization, three hours each, and six hours of other civilizations, including Africa, East Asia, Islam, South Asia and Latin America.

-Foreign language, 12 hours.

-Concepts of mathematics, six hours.

-Foundations of the natural sciences, eight hours.

-The social sciences and the modern world, six hours.

The courses, Cheney said, should be taught in small classes and in an integrated fashion so that, for example, students reading Descartes’ philosophy in a Western civilization course are reminded of his contributions to mathematics.

James Underwood, dean of faculty at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., criticized the NEH for recommending a ″superficial, rigid, and impractical″ college curriculum. He added that Union College this fall began a general education curriculum with an emphasis on history and literature.

″A reform that relies so heavily on the traditional western civilization course runs the risk of a dangerous superficiality,″ said Underwood. ″The western civilization course tries to ‘do everything’ and demands for its success the mythical ‘Renaissance man’ as teacher. History should be taught by broadly educated historians and literature by professors of literature.″

But Norm Adler at the University of Pennsylvania said, ″It is encouraging to notice how much the report mirrors the curricula revisions that have taken place″ at his school.

Similar sentiments were echoed by Michigan State President John DiBieggio, who said his school already has approval for implementing a revised curriculum.

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