Class of 96 fails to face facts

June 21, 1996

Millions of students graduated college in the United States this spring with crisp diplomas, happy memories, bright prospects and apparently very little command of general knowledge.

A survey of 500 graduating seniors nationwide found that 84 per cent did not know who was president of the United States at the start of the Korean War.

Fewer than 25 per cent could identify Italy and Japan as Germany's two principal allies during the second world war and 92 per cent did not know that T. S. Eliot was the author of The Wasteland.

"The results of the survey do not bode well for American education," reported the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, which conducted the poll.

Researchers questioned graduates at 50 public and private four-year colleges and universities on 20 topics, including maths, geography, literature, history, government, religion and science. More than half got all the answers wrong.

Seventy per cent did not know that Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, for instance. Twenty-one per cent did not know the Republican Party holds the majority in Congress and more than half did not know there are 100 United States senators.

Ninety-two per cent did not know that the phrase "Government of the people, by the people and for the people" was part of Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches in American history.

The poll was commissioned by The American, a new Sunday newspaper for Americans abroad. Its editor, John Herrick, pronounced himself horrified by the results.

"We asked the question, 'How much do these students know?' We didn't know what the answers would be," Mr Herrick said. "The judgement is up to the reader: 'Is this what you want? Is this what you expect?'" But education experts said there was no need to be alarmed.

"The question of whether some facts are more important than other facts is rather contentious terrain," said Dick Murnane, a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the author of the forthcoming book entitled Teaching the New Basic Skills.

"I'd be more interested in knowing the extent to which college graduates are able to learn new things and solve problems," Mr Murnane said.

"In this era of the Internet, if you're thoughtful enough to figure out where and how to look for information, I think that's what you really need to function."

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