The shocking ignorance of college students (in 1943)

In 1943, the New York Times ran a series of articles about the woeful state of knowledge of American history among college freshmen. The articles were informed by a survey the Times had commissioned in which 7000 students at 36 colleges and universities were asked to respond to questions about American history and geography. The results were given to Times education reporter Benjamin Fine, who found them to be appalling, and who then wrote the first in what would prove to be a series of articles, titled “Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen: Survey of 7,000 Students in 36 Institutions Discloses Vast Fund of Misinformation On Many Basic Facts.”

Learning of the survey and the subsequent controversy during a recent visit to the New York Times offices, I found myself curious as to how my own knowledge of U.S. history would measure up against the scandalous ignoramuses of 1943.

Fine’s article lists many of the questions from the survey. You may want to read these as I did, as a quiz. I’ve presented Wikipedia links so you can check your answers. The students taking the test did poorly, and I have indicated the percentage that got a correct answer for a number of the questions, where the Times provided that detail.

    1. Carter Glass
    2. James F. Byrnes
    3. Jesse Jones
    4. Norman Thomas
    5. Sam Rayburn
    6. Sumner Welles
    7. John D. Rockefeller
    8. Alexander Hamilton
    9. Charles W. Eliot
    10. Jay Cooke
    11. William James
    12. Carl Schurz
    13. Walt Whitman
    14. John Burroughs
    15. Nicholas Biddle
    16. Roger Taney
    17. Jay Gould
    18. Henry Ward Beecher, and
    19. Roger Williams.
    1. Thomas Hart Benton
    2. Mark Hanna
    3. John C. Calhoun
    4. Henry Clay
    5. Andrew Jackson
    6. Samuel Adams
    7. Daniel Webster

Students were given only 30 minutes to complete the test, and there were only a handful of questions that more than 50 percent of students answered correctly.

The colleges participating included Boston University, Brooklyn College, Bucknell, City College, University of Cincinnati, Colgate, College of Good Counsel, Dartmouth, George Washington University, Hunter, Illinois Institute of Technology, Indiana University, Kansas University, Kentucky University, Maequette, Maryland University, Massachusetts State College, Mount Holyoke, New York University, North Carolina University, Pennsylvania State College, Pennsylvania Univeristy, Pittsburgh University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rhode Island State College, Smith College, Texas University, Tulane, Virginia University, Washington University, State College of Washington, Central Washington College of Education, Eastern Washington College of Education, Western Reserve, William and Mary, and Yeshiva College.

To follow soon: the aftermath of the article’s publication, and the survey’s terrible secret revealed.

One thought on “The shocking ignorance of college students (in 1943)

  1. Pingback: The dark secret behind the ignorance of college students (1943 edition) | monkeywrench

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