Cultural knowledge down over 5 decades

By Ellen Sorokin THE WASHINGTON TIMES

College seniors of 2002 are barely more knowledgeable in culture and history than high school graduates of the 1950s, and they rank far below their counterparts of the same decade, according to a new survey released by the National Association of Scholars.

The average of correct responses for today’s college seniors on a series of questions assessing “general cultural knowledge” was 53.5 percent, compared with 54.5 percent of high school graduates and 77 percent for college graduates in 1955, the poll showed.

“The average amount of knowledge that current college seniors had was just about the same as the amount of knowledge high school graduates had in 1955,” said Stephen Balch, the association’s president. “The results are hardly reassuring.” Mr. Balch attributed the results to a decreased emphasis on general knowledge in high school, which places the burden on colleges and universities.

He also said that colleges are placing less emphasis on liberal arts education in favor of more specialized education geared toward specific career goals. “These results just show us that we have done an awful lot of dumbing down of the curriculum, both at the high school and college levels,” he said. “What we need to do is to have high schools and colleges reinvigorate general education. The education scene has been too much about having the students feel good about themselves, and that has been too often at the real expense of teaching good content.” Others argue the problem is with the teachers and professors.

Winfield Myers, an education analyst with the Democracy Project, an educational-assessment and outreach organization in Wilmington, Del., said colleges of education churn out schoolteachers who are “too often trained in politicized methodologies” rather than educated in the liberal arts and sciences. As a result, many students today enter college possessing less knowledge about key subject areas than did their 1950s peers, he said. “With such role models, it’s not surprising that college seniors are no more interested in the best works of music, art or literature than were high schoolers in the 1940s and ’50s,” Mr. Myers said.

The survey of 401 randomly selected college seniors showed that the group scored better on questions about art, science and literature, while high school graduates of the 1950s fared better on history questions. College graduates of the 1950s performed better on the geography questions, compared with the other two groups who scored about the same.

The survey, which consisted of 15 questions, was conducted in April by Zogby International for the Princeton, N.J.-based NAS, which released the results Wednesday. NAS is a higher-education reform group. The questions asked in April were almost identical to the ones asked in 1955 by the Gallup Organization, with a few questions slightly modified to reflect contemporary times.

The results of the survey can be found at www.nas.org. Mr. Balch said the survey was done primarily to see whether the extra expenditures on higher education has led to a commensurate increase in knowledge. Between 1947 and 1995, the number of high school graduates entering college rose from 2.3 million to 14.2 million. Spending on campuses and faculties expanded even faster, with overall public and private outlays for higher education going from $12.6 billion in 1947-48 to $190 billion in 1995-96, according to the Digest of Education Statistics.

“America has poured enormous amounts of tax dollars into expanding access to higher learning,” Mr. Balch said. “Students spend, and pay for, many more years in the classroom than was formerly the case. Our evidence suggests that this time and treasure may not have substantially raised student cultural knowledge above the high school levels of a half-century ago.”