Higher ed's senior moments

Posted: Sep 28, 2006 12:01 AM
Higher ed's senior moments

File this under: Why am I not surprised? Seniors at the University of California, Berkeley know less about American history, government and politics than Berkeley freshmen, according to a study, "The Coming Crisis in Citizenship," released by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) on Tuesday. It's odd to think that those Cal students who think they know it all more likely know less about America after three years at Berkeley.

As the press release put it, the study of 50 colleges and universities found that, overall, they "are failing to add to their graduates' understanding of America's history and essential institutions" -- including "some of the most expensive and elite" schools in America.

"If you're a school that claims you're putting out well-rounded citizens, you should expect some improvement over time and some base level of knowledge," noted Chris Barnes of the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy. Yet the study found that overall seniors gave only one more right answer -- out of 60 questions -- than freshmen.

Worse, in 16 out of 50 schools, freshmen outscored seniors. The study called it "negative learning": "At these schools, seniors apparently either forgot what is known by their freshman peers or -- more ominously -- were mis-taught by their professors." Some "negative learning" schools were expensive, prestigious institutions -- such as Yale and Brown -- which are supposed to produce America's future leaders.

Figure part of the problem has to be that professors at tony institutions are more interested in pushing their political doctrine than making sure students develop an understanding of how government works in America and why. Et tu, Cal?

Then there's the general dumbing-down of America. Eugene Hickok of ISI sees smart, bright kids entering college, but their education lacks the content, depth and rigor of former years. "This is more evidence that we need to ask the question: Is higher education still higher education?"

Don't blame the survey questions. High school students should know that the Bill of Rights prohibits the establishment of a state religion -- but more than half of college seniors did not know that.

Researchers included questions from a standardized high school test, but college students did no better with them. The survey's field supervisor reported that students did not complain that the survey was too hard. They complained that they should have known the answers.

Hickok sees one factor as universities' treatment of students "as customers, not as clients." Schools should understand their "job is not to make your customer happy," but to educate young adults.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, has seen that attitude. The solons of academia don't want professors to be too tough, he noted, "they want students to be entertained and happy."

Sabato was not happy to learn that the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson to educate leaders of a new democracy, is a member of the Negative Learning Club. Sabato told me, "Thomas Jefferson's university should have been at the very top in terms of civic knowledge."

Indeed, if there is any good news for parents, it's that expensive schools did not fare better than cheaper state schools. "There is no relationship between the cost of attending a college and a student's' acquired understanding of America's history and key institutions," the study reported. My alma mater, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, outscored Harvard.

Try this multiple-choice question: Who suffers when college students don't much know about their government? The students, the quality of leaders they elect or the country? Half of America's college kids have no clue.