Presidents’ Day & Education Priorities

By Daniel Burnett

Let’s skip the sad fact that Presidents’ Day is focused on car sales and mattress discounts and get to the painful truth: Too many Americans – even college seniors – don’t know about the individuals who led our nation and shaped our world.

Even at our nation’s founding, our leaders knew the importance of civic education. President George Washington once said, “A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”

So how are we doing?

Probably worse than the British army at the end of the American Revolution, it turns out. Only 34 percent of college seniors from elite institutions could identify Washington as the general at the Battle of Yorktown, according to a survey by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis. More than a quarter couldn’t name John Adams as the second president. And only 23 percent of students could name James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.”

It may not be necessary for students to memorize that James K. Polk was No. 11 or that James Buchanan preceded Abraham Lincoln – to be honest, neither are likely to come up in casual conversation. But to graduate from college without a basic grasp of our history leaves us poorly prepared to face America’s many challenges, not to mention the fact that it is a tragic slap in the face of the men and women who formed America, and defended her since.

It’s not just the founders who remain strangers to many of today’s students. Only 53 percent identified Theodore Roosevelt as president when America acquired the Panama Canal. Worse, just 22 percent could identify the phrase “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” as part of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

What is happening at our colleges?

It’s called a serious case of academic irresponsibility. Students and families are paying more and more – tuitions have more than quadrupled in the past 25 years – yet colleges are failing to provide our students with the educational foundation they deserve and our country needs.

A nationwide study of more than 1,000 colleges and universities, “What Will They Learn?” ( found that 80 percent of our colleges don’t require students to take even a single foundational course in American history. About 85 percent don’t require students to study foreign language. And despite the state of the global economy, an unbelievable 95 percent of colleges don’t require even a basic economics course. Without a strong educational foundation, how can the leaders of tomorrow set the course for our future?

Too many of today’s graduates are far more likely to be familiar with Snooki than Socrates. Lady Macbeth has receded into near oblivion as Lady Gaga takes center stage. And a very disappointing Google search will find over 400 million hits for performer Nicki Minaj – more than 10 times the number of hits for Thomas Jefferson.

Employers are noticing these skewed priorities. Fully 87 percent of employers believe that our colleges must raise the quality of students’ educations in order for the United States to remain competitive globally, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities. This all comes at a time when the Pew Research Center says young adults are suffering larger income losses than any other group and that they’re less likely to be employed than at any time since World War II.

But don’t ask college seniors about World War II either. Though so many can describe the Occupy Wall Street movement in impassioned detail, many aren’t so knowledgeable about Hitler’s occupation of Europe or the threat to freedom our armies defeated.

It’s time our colleges and universities got their priorities straight. They’re simply not doing an adequate job of preparing the people Washington called “the future guardians of the liberties of the country” when 40 percent of college seniors can’t identify the Constitution as establishing the division of powers between the states and federal government.

President Washington, we’re letting you down.

Daniel Burnett is the press secretary at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher education nonprofit committed to academic excellence. 

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