The General Education Decline Among US Undergraduates

There is a tendency for many students to take ‘relevant’, pre-professional courses as they commence their college studies. After all, most want the quickest path to economic success after graduating: that is, after all, in their self-interest, which, according to Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, is the backbone of our free enterprise system. Many of these self-interested students, though, are passing through the hallowed halls of our most elite schools without encountering Adam Smith or gaining the slightest understanding of how a free enterprise system works. According to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) Civic Literacy report, which was released in 2010, over half our college graduates cannot give a basic description of our market system.

The third annual Civic Literacy test was taken by a statistically significant 14,000 students from 50 colleges across the nation: 25 elite universities (including all the Ivy League schools, Duke, and UC Berkeley) and 25 ‘randomly selected schools’ participated. All took a 60 question test (you can take a shorter form of the quiz, taken by a random sampling of citizens, by going to the ISI, Our Fading Heritage, site:

Here is a sample question:

Business profit is:
A. cost minus revenue
B. assets minus liabilities
C. revenue minus expenses
D. selling price of a stock minus its purchase price
E. earnings minus assets
(The correct answer is “C”)

The eight worst-performing colleges include Cornell, Yale, Duke, UC Berkeley, and Princeton. In these schools ‘the average senior did worse than the average matriculating freshman.’ In essence, in the area of American civics, these schools are producing ‘negative learning.’ The report from the ISI mentioned that Cornell “works like a giant amnesia machine, where students forget what they once knew.” Less than a third of Cornell seniors knew that the Monroe Doctrine dealt with discouraging new colonialism in the Western Hemisphere.

How can this be? Cornell, with its 13,000 undergraduates, 7 colleges, 4,000 courses, and over 100 academic disciplines, is coming up short. This is a surprise because Cornell, especially in the College of Arts and Sciences, has 100s of solid and rigorous courses. Furthermore, it also has some of the top history and government professors in the nation: Isaac Kramnick and Joe Margulies in government and Lawrence B. Glickman and Barry Stuart Strauss in history are all superb. What Cornell doesn’t have, however, is a core curriculum (as is true at many elite universities).  Certainly, students must fulfill distribution requirements by taking courses requiring cultural, historical, philosophical, literary, and behavioral analysis. Yet, a student can actually satisfy the distribution requirements without reading a page of Shakespeare, or a chapter in American History.

Of the colleges that produced students whose civic learning improved between their freshman and senior years, most are not well-known. They include such schools as Eastern Connecticut State, Murray State (KY), Concordia (NE), Illinois State, and the University of Mississippi. Each of these schools has required general education courses and a core curriculum. The freshman entering Concordia University in Nebraska, for example, had a mean score of 46%, while the seniors scored 55%, an improvement of 9%.  Cornell freshmen had a mean score of just below 62%, with seniors earning a mean score of 57%, for a net negative learning experience of 5%.

A core curriculum is not a panacea for all our educational ills. What it does supply, however, is a set of courses that are determined as fundamental and should be mastered. A lot of emphasis is placed on solid, written communication and analysis.  It’s extremely difficult for most 18 or 19 year-old students to know what it is they need to learn to be successful ten years after graduation. Yet, even in the most rigorous core curriculum, according to Jacques Barzun in The American University, “…no student is imprisoned for long in anything he cannot make relevant, if he will only forget the fantasy of instant utility…” (p.72, The American University, Jacques Barzun, University of Chicago Press, 1993).