Press Releases | Historical Literacy

Elite College Seniors Flunk Basic American History

Beavis and Butthead Are More Familiar than George Washington and Abraham Lincoln
February 17, 2000

WASHINGTON, DC—As the nation prepares to celebrate Presidents’ Day across the country, a survey reveals that seniors from America’s elite colleges and universities are graduating with an alarming ignorance of their heritage and a profound historical illiteracy.

In a study called Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reports today that four out of five—81%—of seniors recently surveyed from the top 55 colleges and universities in the United States received a grade of D or F on history questions drawn from a basic high school curriculum.

Seniors could not identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address, or even the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution.

The survey results were compiled by the “Roper Organization,” Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.

Despite this lack of knowledge, today’s colleges and universities no longer demand that their students study American history, ACTA reports.

  • Students can now graduate from 100% of the top colleges without taking a single course in American history.
  • At 78% of the institutions, students are not required to take any history at all.

“This study is a clarion call for action. If institutions of higher education no longer require their students to have a basic knowledge of American civilization and its heritage, we are all in danger of losing a common frame of reference that has sustained our free society for so many generations,” said the report’s author and ACTA vice president Anne D. Neal.

“Knowledge of the past acts like a civic glue,” said ACTA chairman and former National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Lynne V. Cheney. “If our best and brightest are graduating without a grounding in our past, we are on our way to losing that historic memory that makes us all feel part of a common undertaking, no matter how diverse our backgrounds.”

“This report explains why visitors coming to Mount Vernon seem to know next to nothing about the real George Washington, and why they appear to be almost starved for American history,” said James C. Rees, director of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. “Our own studies have determined that history is being shortchanged in elementary schools, where even our greatest hero, George Washington, receives so little time and attention. Yet why should we be surprised if the college graduates teaching these children have learned so little history themselves?”

“All of us should be alarmed by this study,” said ACTA advisor and United States Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT). “When we lose our memory, when we lose our understanding of the remarkable individuals and events that have shaped our democratic republic, we are losing much of what it means to be an American. It is critical that we start immediately to regain that memory if we are to perform our role as engaged and informed citizens.”

History professors also expressed dismay at the survey results. “To be an American is not to ‘be’ somebody; it is to believe in something. And that something is the fund of ideals and values created by our historical experience,” said Gordon Wood, professor of history at Brown University.

“History is a discipline in decline, ”said Oscar Handlin, University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University. “There is a profound ignorance not only among students but among their teachers as well. This study confirms that.”

John Patrick Diggins, Distinguished Professor of History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, agreed: “’We cannot escape history,’ Abraham Lincoln warned Americans more than a century ago. According to the ACTA report on the teaching of history in the leading colleges and universities in the country, students have escaped it and remain happily ignorant of their own ignorance in an educational establishment that has surrendered its mission to popular culture.”

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

  • Only 34% of the students surveyed could identify George Washington as an American general at the battle of Yorktown, the culminating battle of the American Revolution.
  • Only 58% were able to identify George Washington as “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
  • Less than one quarter (23%) correctly identified James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.”
  • Even fewer–22% of the college seniors–were able to identify “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” as a line from the Gettysburg Address.
  • Over one-third were unable to identify the US Constitution as establishing the division of power in American government.
  • Little more than half (52%) knew George Washington’s Farewell Address warned against permanent alliances with foreign governments.

By contrast, the students received nearly perfect scores on contemporary popular culture.

  • 99% know who the cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead are.
  • 98% can identify the rap singer Snoop Doggy Dogg.

In light of the findings, ACTA recommends that colleges and universities add requirements in American history. It also recommends that parents help their students select colleges with strong history requirements and that students be encouraged to take American history whether it is required or not.

The survey was conducted in December 1999 at the 55 colleges ranked by US News and World Report as the leading liberal arts colleges and research universities.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is a national nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to academic freedom, quality and accountability. In 1996, it published The Shakespeare File: What English Majors Are Really Studying, a report which revealed that two-thirds of the top colleges and universities no longer require their English majors to study Shakespeare.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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