Running in Place

Peter Wood

Candace de Russy on Phi Beta Cons links a website picture of a test about the Constitution given in 1954 in which an 8th grader, Kenny Hignite, scored 98½ percent by listing all the cabinet positions and the people holding them, all the justices of the Supreme Court, the substance of the first 22 amendments, and more. It is a feat few eighth graders could perform today—or for that matter, few adults, and certainly few college students. The thinness of substantive knowledge among today’s students is often remarked in a general way. But there actually is a systematic study comparing the general knowledge of high school grads from Kenny Hignite’s era with today’s college grads. In December 2002, the NAS published a survey, "Today's College Students and Yesteryear's High School Grads: A Comparison of General Cultural Knowledge." We did this by commissioning Zogby International to poll a sample of 2002 college seniors with 15 questions regarding "cultural knowledge" that had originally been administered to similar groups of high school seniors in 1955. These included knowledge of canonical authors, geographical knowledge or watershed historical events. The results were not reassuring. 61% of high school seniors polled in 1955 knew that Madrid was the capital of Spain; 63% of college seniors in 2002 also knew. At the same time, 67% of those responding in 1955 knew that Maine bordered Canada, while only 50% of 2002 college seniors answered correctly. Overall, we found that the two groups - high school seniors of 1955 and college seniors of 2002 - were approximately equivalent in their general cultural and historical knowledge. We could be pleased, I suppose, that absolute decline hasn’t set in. But we should also keep in mind that 1955 was before Sputnik, and the first great national effort to raise academic standards to keep up with the Soviets. And it was before the 1965 Higher Education Act began the immense federally-funded expansion of higher education. All those billions spent improving our schools and colleges may have done something, but they don’t appear to have improved American’s cultural knowledge. What we have instead is college seniors who perform at the level of 1950s high school students.

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