Thursday, November 15, 2007


As an educator in a higher education setting, I'm interested in the purposes of higher education. What should our university's students be getting out of their education? Ernest Boyer (1928-1995) provided many of the ideas that guide my university. He once said in an interview shortly before he died, that:

. . . Every one of our Founding Fathers knew that if we wanted to move toward a government that was run by the people, they had to be enlightened. Surely, they have to work; surely, they have to be responsible as producers as well as consumers. But the larger purpose of education in this country is always driven by the fact that we need people to be civically engaged, intellectually and educationally well informed, or else we were opening the doors to tyranny. . . .

I agree with that. I think that even in a university setting we professors and staff must fulfill a duty to model a civically engaged life, and we must be certain that our students graduate with a fair understanding of some of the basic facts, problems, and theories related to government, history, and economics. In fact, I've been trying to work with some of my colleagues in our department to come up with some ideas about core knowledge that we agree our students should know, because I would like to measure how much of this core knowledge our students know when they enter our program and how much they know when they graduate.

So, it was with great interest that I took a civics test an old friend, Scott Fares had posted on his blog. This test is the civics literacy test produced by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's National Civic Literacy board. Checking out the mission and values of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (which you can perhaps guess as you take the civics literacy test) I found six values guiding ISI. I strongly agreed with two of these values: Individual Liberty and The Rule of Law, but I could only give partial or strongly qualified agreement to the other four values. In fact, two of the so-called "values" seem more like empirical (and falsifiable) propositions to me, rather than values (these are the so-called "values" of the Free Market Economy and Moral Norms. I think there is some truth in these propositions, but I wouldn’t entirely endorse them as true.

Anyway, I did pretty well on the test, scoring 57/60 for 95%, and upon reflection I realized I had known the correct answers to two of the three I missed, but I hadn’t taken the time to think carefully about what the questions were asking and I hadn’t bothered to read all the potential answers carefully. One item on the test (number 58, What is a major effect of a purchase of bonds by the Federal Reserve?) completely stumped me.

Today in my liberal studies class I had my students take the quiz. Scores averaged 31.5 correct (52.5%), which puts my students, who are mostly first-semester juniors, although I have some first semester seniors and second-semester sophomores, in the company of seniors at schools such as Iowa State University, the University of Montana, the University of Florida, Gonzaga University (in Washington), and the University of Michigan.

As my students took the test, I re-took it, but instead of looking at the quiz to consider the correct answers, I tried to rate the quality of the questions. Many of the questions, especially in the history section, seemed to me to be asking questions that were not especially significant or important. For example, the first question asked students to identify the century when the Jamestown colony was founded. Well, it was founded exactly 400 years ago this year, so people really ought to know it was founded in the 1600s, but if someone mistakenly confused Jamestown with Roanoke (which was founded and disappeared late in the 1500s), would that really indicate a woefully inadequate understanding of American history? I think not. Now, someone who thought Jamestown was founded in the 14th century would be demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of chronology, but the test makes no allowances for distinguishing between close misses and really awful guesses.

I also found many brilliant questions. In fact, the good (and even great) questions outnumbered the weak questions. Only a very few questions were genuinely bad or misleading. All in all, I think I’ll use this quiz in my future classes and my senior seminars to see how our students score compared to the scores the ISI is getting at other schools. I could think up an additional 20 questions to mix in with the existing 60 and add those with the 40-or-so good questions in the existing survey to make a new alternative version.

One weakness of this sort of testing is that it mainly measures knowledge of facts, familiarity with terms, and frequently we’re just learning how well students can recall of details of dubious importance. It’s difficult to measure analysis, synthesis, comparison, evaluation, or application with short and simple multiple item tests, but there are great items on this quiz that do measure something beyond simple recall of facts, and I’m thankful to the ISI for making this quiz free and widely available by publishing it online.

Before taking the quiz I had my students watch an episode of the old 1960s television miniseries The Prisoner staring Patrick McGoohan. This was the episode called “ The General” (episode six). The episode features a science-fiction technology called “speedlearn” in which college courses are impressed directly into the cerebral cortex through television transmissions, so that students can memorize the facts of a course in just a few seconds of television viewing. There is a great scene where the authority figure is describing how this technology will enable experts to put infallible information into the minds of students with minimal effort, and asks “what have we got?” The Patrick McGoohan figure, who plays the hero, retorts with disgust, “a row of cabbages” to which the authority figure responds, “indeed, knowledgeable cabbages.” The Prisoner asks about what people should learn, and who chooses. A good question. I’m sure I don’t want the ISI to be in charge of deciding what information my students should be learning in college.

My students discussed this with me throughout the semester, and each one writes a paper on their educational philosophy. What should people learn? Who should decide what people must learn? Several students share the opinion held in common by the ISI and myself that there are some core knowledge facts that everyone with a college degree ought to know. Some of these facts are measured by this ISI quiz we took, but many crucial facts are missing, and many facts that the ISI thought important enough to include in the test seemed trivial to me. There are a few questions that are only generally, but not precisely correct (e.g., the battle of Yorktown effectively ended fighting in the American Revolution, but it didn’t end the war, which wasn’t concluded until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, nearly two years after the Battle of Yorktown. On the other hand, The War of 1812 was concluded by the Battle of New Orleans, which was actually fought after the Treaty of Ghent had officially ended the war, but since the war of 1812 was in many ways a continuation of the American Revolution war, it would make sense, and be highly original and creative, to say that the Battle of New Orleans concluded the wars of American Independence, whereas the Battle of Yorktown merely initiated a 31 year pause in the active warfare between England and some of her North American colonies).

We discussed in class some of the issues that face us if we try to determine what is important to know in history or government or economics. I mentioned a lecture by James Loewen I had attended this past weekend on the subject of the Springfield Pogrom against African-Americans and the nadir of American race relations and the problem of sundown towns. In my experience, the sort of people that advocate for the sort of test the ISI produced seem to think it’s more important to know that Jamestown was settled in the 17th century (and not the 18th or 16th century) than it is to know that between 1891 and the 1940s America went through a nadir of race relations in which many small towns chased out Jews and African-Americans, and mobs in many larger towns tried to destroy African-American neighborhoods and terrorize African-Americans (there were pogroms in Tulsa, Chicago, Springfield (IL), East St. Louis, Wilmington (NC), Atlanta, and Detroit). I do think it’s important to know when Jamestown was settled, or when Lincoln was elected, or the basic chronology of the Civil War, but I think it’s significantly more important to know something about the history of race relations in our society, because this is something that still influences us.

Instead of asking about the years when Lincoln served as our president, I’d rather ask about the content and meaning of his second inaugural address. Instead of asking when Jamestown was founded, I’d rather ask a question about the importance of the plantation system (especially for the growing of tobacco) in early Virginia history and how this plantation system set up an economy where many laborers were imported in slavery or indentured servitude from the British Empire or from Africa, and how this made Virginia culturally and economically quite distinct from the New England colonies of small landholders.

If you take the quiz, let me know how you do, and what you think of the exam. Can you beat my students’ average score of 32 correct? Check out Loewen’s page on sundown towns. What do you think? Should this be part of core knowledge that all American college students learn? How does it rank in importance with other basic facts?

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