Rain on the Fourth's Parade

The fireworks and parades of another Independence Day are over and done, but this year there was something not worth celebrating: A survey of seniors at the nation's top universities found huge gaps in knowledge about America's history.

The students, for instance, had trouble placing Abraham Lincoln's presidency, or Thomas Jefferson's, in the right decade of the right century. Many were unclear what the Emancipation Declaration was. Overall, some 80 percent of the 556 seniors surveyed received a "D" or "F" on the 34-question multiple-choice survey.

But the people who administered the quiz, from the University of Connecticut's Center for Survey Research and Analysis, found some anomalies. A fairly high percentage knew that Frederick Douglass was an abolitionist leader. Many could identify "sputnik." Evidence, probably, of more recent reading and study.

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But right answers dipped to 30 percent or lower on who fathered the Constitution (James Madison) or who proclaimed "Give me liberty or give me death!" (Patrick Henry).

Has the study of American history been swept aside by modern trends in teaching, particularly in lower grades?

The purpose of knowing the basics about the United States isn't to amass facts but to put them to use in understanding the democracy and civil rights that must be kept alive today.

So when the next Fourth rolls around, let's hope more students know the basics of history - so they don't have to repeat it.

The survey questions are available online at www.csra.uconn.edu (see the "Elite College History Survey" questionnaire) at the bottom.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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