Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Why wait 'till 18?

As the Arizona Republic reported today, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in a 19 July letter asked Governor Janet Napolitano and the Arizona Board of Regents to move beyond the symbolism of hanging the Stars and Stripes and and copies of the Constitution in every classroom by requiring every student at the state universities to take a course in U.S. History.

ACTA reports that over 75% of outgoing college students can't identify James Madison's rôle in the writing of the U.S. Constitution. In itself that's not reason for concern; I'd be willing to bet that most of the folks at ACTA can't remember that Gouverneur Morris wrote most of it or what Roger Sherman had to do with anything. I had to look up the latter, but so what?--those are just names and facts dissociated from any meaningful context.

50%, 75%, 92%, what does it matter? Although the modern obsession with quantification lead them to a weak argument, ACTA's point still stands; it's not likely that students who fail the $100 Jeopardy question have been brought to appreciate the Constitution's purpose and historical context or to think deeply about its meaning, or in general to understand history in such a way that it refines their perception of the present and deepens their views of civic life and public policy.

However, college students are already voters, and chances are that by age 18 they've chosen a political label and its corresponding set of confirmation biases. While ACTA's proposal may bring about much-needed discussion, I doubt its implementation would be significantly beneficial.

Two more radical reforms in the same vein--of which ACTA National Council member Jacques Barzun would probably approve--might get to the heart of the matter.


  1. Teach real, rigorous, history in high schools. There's no good reason for students in high school to be taught history as a collection of lifeless facts and not as a living academic discipline like most of the good private schools do. There are plenty of bad reasons: the students can't read, it requires intellectual effort from teachers, parents will complain about the suddenly high standards, and surely busybodies the world over will fret over the prospects for indoctrination.

    Throw out the textbooks and the multiple-choice tests. Have them read Hofstadter, Zinn, and a slew of book chapters and write term papers citing primary sources. When classroom debate is commonplace, as long as the teacher has fair standards, who can complain of indoctrination?

  2. Ban the term "Gen Ed" at the state colleges and introduce a liberal arts core. Flexibility and choice don't have to go, but tolerance for anti-intellectualism, the notion of the university as an accrediting body, and the rotten idea that courses outside one's major are an add-on or a nuisance should've been dispensed with a long time ago. The multiple-hundred-person lecture and the high-school-style multiple-choice exam needs to go out the door with general education. It's not important that every college graduate knows Harry Truman was president when the Korean War broke out, but it is important for them as citizens to know how to ask the tough questions and bring a healthy skepticism to bear on their own beliefs, on those of their fellows, and most importantly on the actions of those in power.

    If they were to dig deeper, I suspect ACTA would find not only an unfamiliarity with the basics "Whos" and "Whens" of American history but with the Big Questions. To anyone concerned with preserving human liberty and avoiding the mistakes of the past, that, and not the results of some survey, is what is truly troubling.

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