Today’s College Students and Yesteryear’s High School Grads: A Comparison of General Cultural Knowledge

Dec 18, 2002 |  NAS

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Today’s College Students and Yesteryear’s High School Grads: A Comparison of General Cultural Knowledge

Dec 18, 2002 | 

NAS

America has led the world in democratizing access to higher education. Between 1947 and 1995 the number of high school graduates entering college (including community college) rose from 2,338,2261 to 14,261, 8002—a rate of growth three times faster than that of the population3. Spending on campuses and faculties expanded even faster, overall public and private outlays for higher education going from $12.6 billion4 in 1947-48 to $190 billion5 in 1995-96 (measured in constant 1995-96 dollars). But a key question—too often taken for granted—remains unanswered: has this vast increase in expenditure of student time and national wealth actually led to a commensurate increase in knowledge?

It is clear that college graduates have an earnings potential substantially greater than those who proceed no further than high school, and that this, in some part, is a result of the acquisition in college of profession-related skills. But evidence that the extension of the average length of the academic experience has had any impact on the acquisition of general cultural knowledge, or upon the desire to attain it (both major goals of liberal education), is scant.

One of the few ways in which such evidence could be gained is by comparing the cultural knowledge levels, and cultural aspiration levels, of prior generations of high school and college graduates with those completing their college educations today. This study attempts to do just that, though the attempt is somewhat constrained by the paucity of suitable survey data available from earlier periods. The limited number of questions employed in this survey largely reflects that constraint.

The study’s findings are based upon a survey done for the National Association of Scholars by Zogby International in April of 2002. In the course of the poll, a random sample of 401 college and university seniors, attending both private and public institutions of higher learning, were interviewed. The questions asked them were, with occasional modifications required to remove dated allusions, identical with those asked of random samples of the American public at various times during the 1940s and 1950s by the Gallup organization.

These earlier surveys of the general public involved samples that were considerably larger than the Zogby poll. In one case, the 1955 Gallup general knowledge survey, it was possible to break the results down into large subsets based on age. This allowed for comparisons between the 2002 college seniors and those members of the public at large who were between 25 and 36 when polled in 1955. The purpose in restricting the comparison in this way was to try, as much as possible, to control for the information acquisition effects of aging. The results for these 1955 Gallup questions could also be broken down on the basis of level of schooling, the categories being “attended elementary school”, “graduated from high school”, and “graduated from college”. This allowed the 2002 college seniors to be further compared with those members of the 1955 25-36 year-old cohort who had completed their own educations at successively advanced stages.

With respect to the questions about cultural interests and aspirations it was not possible to procure breakdowns by age and education. However, the great majority of respondents in any random sample of the entire population in the 1940s and 1950s would have finished their formal education at no more than the elementary or high school level. The comparisons with respect to these questions thus juxtaposed a contemporary population of students whose members had almost completed their college educations, with a population whose formal education was, on average, far less advanced.

Specific Findings

When given a test covering four areas of general knowledge, American college seniors score at about the same overall level as did high school graduates of fifty years ago. Today’s seniors do better on questions pertaining to literature, music, and science; about the same on questions about geography, and worse on questions dealing with history. Their personal interest in high culture, measured by questions about their favorite authors and classical music also seems little different than that of the public at large fifty years ago. By almost every measure of cultural knowledge in our survey, today’s college seniors appear to rank far below the college graduates of mid-century.

The responses to the individual questions follow:

I. General Knowledge Questions:

1. With respect to two questions testing knowledge of high culture, today’s college seniors scored substantially better than 1950s high school graduates. Compared to 1950s college graduates6, today’s seniors did slightly better on one question, and less well on the other.

a. Asked “Who wrote the play titled A Midsummer Night’s Dream”? 78% of this year’s college seniors correctly identified Shakespeare, as opposed to 37% of the high school graduates and 73% of the college graduates in 1955.

b. Asked “What composer wrote the Messiah”? 35% of this year’s college seniors correctly identified Handel, as opposed to 20% of high school graduates, and 56% of the college graduates in 1955.

2. With respect to two questions testing knowledge of science, today’s college graduates far outscored both the 1950s high school and college graduates on one, but only equaled the high school graduates, and trailed the college graduates on the other.

a. Asked “Which planet is nearest the sun”? 59% of this year’s seniors correctly identified Mercury, as opposed to only 6% of the 1950s high school graduates and 20% of the college graduates.

b. Asked “ What great scientist do you associate with the Theory of Relativity”? 72% of this year’s college seniors correctly identified Einstein, as opposed to 83% of the 1950s high school graduates and 98% of the college graduates. (The earlier survey was conducted in June of 1955, two months after Einstein’s death. It began “What great scientist, who died recently….” The 1955 respondents thus had an additional clue.) 3. With respect to eight questions on geography, this year’s colleges seniors did better than the 1950s high school graduates on three questions, about the same on two, and worse on three. The seniors did about as well as the 1950s college graduates on one question, and worse than them on seven.

a. Asked “Which is the largest lake in North America”? 38% of this year’s seniors correctly identified Lake Superior, as opposed to 27% of the 1950s high school graduates and 47% of the 1950s college graduates.

b. Asked “What is the national language of Brazil”? 55% of this year’s seniors correctly identified Portuguese, as opposed to 13% of the 1950s high school graduates and 58% of the college graduates.

c. Asked “What is the capital city of Spain”? 63% of this year’s college seniors correctly identified Madrid, as opposed to 61% of the 1950s high school graduates and 89% of the college graduates.

d. Asked “Which of the following states borders Canada”?7 Of today’s college seniors, 60% correctly answered yes when Montana was named, as opposed to 56% of the 1950s high school graduates and 69% of the college graduates.

e. Of today’s college seniors, 50% correctly answered yes when Maine was named, as opposed to 67% of the 1950s high school graduates and 80% of the college graduates.

f. Of today’s college seniors, 57% answered yes when Michigan was named, as opposed to 86% of the 1950s high school graduates and 91% of the college graduates.

g. Of today’s college seniors, 53% correctly answered yes when Minnesota was named, as opposed to 61% of the 1950s high school graduates and 71% of the college graduates.

4. With respect to three history questions, today’s college seniors trailed both the 1950s high school graduates and the 1950s college graduates.

a. Asked “Who made the first non-stop sole trans-Atlantic Flight”? 49% of this year’s college seniors correctly identified Lindbergh, as opposed to 79% of the 1950s high school graduates and 96% of the 1950s college graduates. (The 1955 respondents were, of course, more than a generation closer to Lindbergh’s 1927 flight than the respondents in 2002.)

b. Asked “ In what country was the Battle of Waterloo fought’? only 3% of this year’s college seniors correctly identified the country as Belgium, as opposed to 44% of the 1950s high school graduates and 64% of the 1950s college graduates.

c. Asked “What profession do you associate with Florence Nightingale”? 53% of today’s college seniors correctly answered nursing or medicine, as opposed to 87% of 1950s high school graduates and 96% of 1950s college graduates.

d. Asked “ What is the name of the decoration given to those in the armed forces who are wounded in action against the enemy”? 78% of this year’s college seniors correctly answered “the Purple Heart”, as opposed to 90% of the 1950s high school graduates and 91% of the 1950s college graduates. (It should be noted that conscription was still in effect in the 1950s).

II. Reading and Musical Experience

The Zogby survey also contained a series a questions, tracking those asked by Gallup of national samples in the late 1940s and 1950s, eliciting personal interest in, and experience with, reading and music. With respect to interest in reading, today’s college seniors showed somewhat greater interest in canonical and “high-brow” authors than did a general sample of the American population surveyed in 1946. With respect to expressing interest in acquiring a fairly complete collection of classical music, the 2002 college seniors lagged somewhat behind a 1957 national sample of owners of long-playing record players (who in that year constituted about 37% of the American population as a whole.)

On the other hand, today’s college students were substantially more likely to have taken music lessons than earlier national respondents. However, the instruments studied differed considerably. Of the earlier national sample, the overwhelming majority who studied an instrument had taken lessons in either piano or violin playing. Among today’s college seniors, the majority who studied an instrument had taken lessons on some other instrument. Asked “ Do you have a favorite author”? 56% of contemporary college seniors said Yes, as opposed to 32% of the general population in 1946. Those who answered Yes, were then asked to identify who their favorite author was. We divided the replies according to whether the author named could best be considered canonical - or at least “high-brow” – as opposed to “popular”. (We interpreted these designations fairly generously, giving the authors the benefit of the doubt when choosing to assign them to the higher status designation. For a list of all the authors named, and our categorization of each, and a discussion of our method, see Appendix A.) Analyzed this way, we classified 17% of the 1946 national sample, as opposed to 24% of the 2002 college seniors, as having given a canonical or “high-brow” response. Although some satisfaction can be derived from this result, several cautionary considerations should be kept in mind. First, overwhelming majorities in both samples - 83% of the 1946 national sample versus 76% of the 2002 college senior sample - either had no favorite author preference, or preferred a popular author – hardly an impressive difference. Second, of those who had a favorite author, a higher percentage (53%) of the 1946 national sample, than of the 2002 college senior sample (43%), fell into the canonical/ “high-brow” category. Third, the 2002 college seniors, obviously, not only had, on average, many more years of formal education than did the 1946 sample, they were still actually in college, taking, or fresh from taking, courses in literature.

To be sure, these avowals of author favorites need not be taken at face value, and probably reflect as much what respondents thought respectable, as what they actually read. Nonetheless, what is respected is not irrelevant to the development of genuine behavorial predilections. Asked “Would you like to build up a fairly complete library of the world’s greatest classical music on CDs?” (The form of the question asked by Gallup in 1946 was “Would you like to build up a more or less complete library of the world’s great classical music on records, or not?), 30% of contemporary college seniors answered yes, 68% answered no. Among a sample of owners of 33rpm-capable record players asked the comparable question in 1957, 39% answered Yes, and 56% answered No.

Asked “Did you ever take lessons to play a musical instrument”? 69% of contemporary college seniors answered yes, as opposed to 44% of a national sample of the American public in 1957. However, there was a significant difference in the instruments studied. Of the contemporary college seniors, 45% of those who studied an instrument had studied piano, followed by guitar at 16%, clarinet at 13%, saxophone at 12%, flute at 11%, violin at 11%, trumpet at 9%, drums at 4%, trombone at 4%, voice at 3%, cello at 3%, and thirteen other instruments at less than 2%. By contrast, of the respondents in the 1957 national sample who had studied an instrument, 69% studied piano, 17% violin, 4% trumpet, 3% saxophone, 3% clarinet, 3% organ, 2% banjo, 2% cornet, 2% bass, baritone or alto horn, 2% trombone, and 2% mandolin.

Conclusions

A more numerous set of benchmark questions would have provided a deeper and more systematic answer to the question of how much extra “furnishings of the mind” today’s college education adds to that generally acquired by high school graduates fifty to sixty years ago. Nonetheless, the questions we used suggest that the addition of general cultural knowledge has probably been only modest and spotty. Literary and scientific knowledge may have improved, geographical knowledge seems on balance about the same, knowledge of history, especially world history, may have declined. On the whole, there does not appear to be any impressive advance beyond previous levels of high school attainment, nor an approximation of what previous college graduates appear to have mastered.

The number of college graduates in the earlier samples was, to be sure, very small, numbering only 45. This, perforce, reduces one’s confidence in the comparisons between yesteryear’s college graduates and today’s seniors. Still, the consistency of the knowledge superiority displayed from question to question by yesteryear’s college graduates makes us believe that their superiority is real.

The subset of high school graduates in the earlier surveys was, by contrast, considerably larger, numbering 164. This means a margin of statistical error of about +/- 7.7%. For its part, the Zogby data, based on a sample of 401, has a margin of error of +/- 5%. The most reliable and meaningful comparisons are thus between these earlier high school cohorts and today’s college seniors. These comparisons fail to show consistent differences overall, though, as noted, patterns do emerge when particular subject areas are examined individually.

The overall average of correct responses for the entire general knowledge survey was 53.5% for today’s college seniors, 54.5% of the 1955 high school graduates, and 73.3% for the 1955 college graduates. Removing questions 2b, 4a, and 4d, with respect to which the 1955 respondents might have a special advantage due to the immediacy of Einstein’s death (2b), the only 28 rather than 65 years’ distance from the Lindbergh flight (4a), and personal military experience (4d), these figures become 50.3% for the 2002 college seniors, 47.1% for the 1955 high school graduates, and 67.8% for the 1955 college graduates. In other words, even with these adjustments, there is only a separation of 3.2% between the 2002 seniors and the 1955 high school graduates, compared to a 17.5% separation between the seniors and the 1955 college graduates.

Looked at another way, the 2002 college seniors did better than the 1955 high school graduates on seven questions and worse on eight. (If 2b, 4a, and 4d are omitted, the 2002 college seniors did better on seven questions and worse on five.) Compared with the 1955 college graduates, the 2002 college seniors did better on two and worse on thirteen questions. (If 2b, 4a and 4d are omitted, they did better on two and worse on ten.) It is, of course, common today for educators to denigrate the importance of factual knowledge, giving emphasis instead to what they usually call “thinking skills”. While this is not the place to enter into this debate at length, it seems to us that learning “how to think” about matters pertaining to culture and society has at least as much to do with having a fund of reliable information “to think about” as it does to possessing special thinking skills (other than common sense) or some body of abstruse theoretical understandings. Thus, the failure—suggested by our comparisons—of additional years of education to enlarge the stock of general cultural knowledge, seems to us indicative of a serious shortcoming in the design of contemporary education.

Perhaps the most discouraging finding of our study is that the high-cultural aspirations of contemporary college seniors, as measured by their avowed tastes in reading, and avowed interest in classical music, are not impressively distinct from those of broad samples of the American population at mid-century, only a small fraction of which had completed college. (Though given the recent emphasis our colleges and universities have been putting on the teaching and study of popular culture, this may not be that surprising.) To be sure, avowals of cultural interest in serious reading and classical music, which is what our survey questions sought to elicit, need not be taken at face value, and probably reflect as much what respondents thought respectable, as what they actually read and listened to. But what is respected is far from irrelevant to the development of genuine behavioral predilections. If an important part of a liberal education consists in opening the mind to the peak achievements of human genius and developing an appropriate respect for them, the time and treasure we’ve been showering on education’s prolongation may not be getting us materially closer to those goals. Please see Appendix A (PDF) for a list of all authors mentioned in the surveys. Click here for a complete PDF listing of the raw questions asked and data elicited in the survey.

 

NOTES

1. Digest of Education Statistics, 1995, U.S. Department of Education, p. 176.
2. Almanac Issue, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 1, 2000, p. 24.
3. Based on a population of 144,126,071 in 1947 and 262,764,948 in 1995. US Population From 1900, Demographia.com, November 13, 2002. Source: US Census Bureau.
4. Digest of Education Statistics, 1995, U.S. Department of Education, p. 346. The given figure of $1,883,269,000 is expressed in constant 1995-96 dollars, based on a Consumer Price Index of 22.3 for 1947 and 24.1 for 1948 (averaging 23.2 for 1947-48) and a CPI of 152.4 for 1995 and 156.9 for 1996 (averaging 154.65 for 1995-96), the 1947-48 figure being multiplied by 6.666 to obtain constant dollars. Source: Consumer Price Index, U.S. City Average, All Urban Consumers, All Items (base 1982-1984 = 100), Economic Indicators Handbook, 4th Edition (Gale Research, Detroit: 1998), pp. 204-205.
5. Almanac Issue, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 1, 2000, p. 42.
6. Figures for 1950s high school and college graduates are from Table 2.5, Academic Knowledge among Individuals Age 25-36 in the Late 1950s, The Enduring Effects of Education, Herbert H. Hyman, Charles R. Wright (editor), and John S. Reed (editor) (University of Chicago Press: November 1978).
7. All figures for contemporary college seniors related to this question are from the Special Multipunch Crosstab, College Seniors Survey 4/17/02, Zogby International, October 30, 2002.
8. For the June 1946 Gallup poll, responses for favorite authors were given in whole percentages with regard to the 32% of the half sample who indicated they had a favorite author. Responses under 1% were apparently totaled under “Miscellaneous,” and “Others” totaled the mentions of less than 0.5% each. To determine author preference as a percentage of the entire half sample that was asked the question, each given percentage of the subpopulation was multiplied by .32. For example, a 5% response for Shakespeare in the subpopulation was multiplied by .32 to yield a 1.6% figure with respect to the entire half sample. Listed percentages were added to determine responses for groups of authors. For example, responses totaling 10% for eight contemporary authors were multiplied by .32 to yield 3.2% for the group.
9. For the April 2002 Zogby poll, responses for favorite authors were given in whole numbers. To determine author preference as a percentage of the entire sample, response numbers for the subpopulation were divided by the total number of respondents: 401.
For example, 11 responses for contemporary non-American authors (divided by 401) yielded 2.7%, 9 responses for contemporary American authors yielded 2.2%, and the combined 20 responses for contemporary authors yielded 5%.


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