Another thing people often ask folks in my line of work is how well modern students are prepared for college work, and my answer is—about as prepared as their parents were. Much depends on family, high school, and attitude, but then and now, most are in for a culture shock when they encounter university-level assignments, especially reading assignments, and too many have to see that first “F” on an exam paper before they take the process seriously. Overall, there is some slippage in geography and understanding sequence in history—you know, one darn thing after another, but connected.
A few years ago, colleagues at various universities helped me with a questionnaire that asked 500 students about what they knew—general knowledge. Here are some results: 58% could not identify J. Edgar Hoover; only about half knew the significance of Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, or Jefferson Davis. 65%--pretty good—could identify Napoleon Bonaparte, but less than half knew why Neil Armstrong should be remembered. 60% did not know in which country Managua, Copenhagen, or Hanoi were located.
Sequence threatened geography. Half could not name the century, to which Appomattox belongs, or Waterloo, the French Revolution, the Great Awakening, or the identification of germs. About the same number could not identify the authors of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Don Quixote, Moby Dick, or Genesis.
Like to know what some thought? J. Edgar Hoover was a president, assassinated President Kennedy, or built a “damn;” Marx was identified as dictator, tele-evangelist, or one of the brothers who invented airplanes; Robert Frost was a composer—of the National Anthem; Ansel Adams played Potsey on “Happy Days;” Einstein was a president, developed a theory of time travel (not bad), or discovered electricity; Charles Darwin developed pasteurization, or the theory of relativity, or invented the cotton gin; Jefferson Davis helped write the Declaration of Independence, defended the Alamo, and was an early African American leader; Pablo Picasso painted the “Mona Lisa;” Napoleon married Gwenivere; and Albert Schweitzer was a muscleman. Managua is in Africa; Seoul is in Japan, near Kiev; Juneau is in Vietnam, Tripoli in Israel, and Buenos Aires in the Caribbean.
How about this: a Jewish girl wrote Mien Kampt; Franklin Roosevelt the Gettysburg Address, Shakespeare Moby Dick, and King James wrote Genesis.
This, from the parents of today’s students. Maybe we still have a chance with the kids.
Archie P. McDonald was a professor of history and Community Liaison at Stephen F. Austin State University. His commentaries were also featured each Friday morning on Red River Radio.