What Should College Students Be Taught?

January 5, 1990

Report Outline
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Is there a common body of knowledge that all educated persons should possess? Should all undergraduates, regardless of their major, be expected to take a core of required courses in essential areas? And, if so, what should be taught in those courses? These questions are not new, but they are at the heart of the current controversy over curriculum at America's colleges and universities.

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Last spring some 700 graduating college seniors took a test—and most of them flunked. The test, which was conducted for the National Endowment for the Humanities, was intended to measure the students' knowledge of American and world history and literature. The results were not encouraging. Most of the seniors did not know that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America or that Plato was the author of The Republic. Nor did they know that the authors of The Federalist papers were trying to win ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The seniors weren't totally ignorant of history and literature, however. Nearly all of them (95 percent) knew that Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and three-quarters of them knew that Columbus first landed in the Western Hemisphere before 1500. But a quarter of the seniors got this question wrong.

Many doubt that young people today are any more ignorant than their counterparts in the past. “I honestly don't find my students, in 21 years of teaching at the college level, to have changed an awful lot with respect to their knowledge,” says William M. Chace, president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and a former professor of English at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

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