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Colleges are graduating historically illiterate students

America has come a long way since its humble beginnings, and we have much to be thankful for. Sandra Day O'Connor is the current chief justice of the Supreme Court. The 1944 Battle of the Bulge was a successful endeavor during the Revolutionary War. And the "Father of the Constitution" was … Benjamin Franklin?

Something's wrong here.

Those were among the incorrect answers given in a recent American history survey of college graduates. So as we take a break after enjoying our turkey dinners, let's remember also that many college students are starving from a lack of American history knowledge.

The recent Roper survey found that only 57 percent of college graduates knew John Roberts is the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Less than one-fifth could identify James Madison as the "Father of the Constitution." And just 42 percent knew the Battle of the Bulge was fought during World War II. And this is from a multiple choice survey – among college graduates!

If it's true that history repeats itself, at least our college graduates won't have to worry about déjà vu.
It may not be necessary for students to know that Millard Fillmore was the 13th president or that James Madison was the shortest. But to graduate without a basic grasp of our history leaves us poorly prepared to face America's many challenges. Such historical illiteracy also is an insult to those who formed and who have defended our nation.

But the ignorance should not surprise us. 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. More than 85 percent don't require students to study foreign language. And despite the state of the global economy, only 5 percent of our colleges require even a basic economics course.

In a nation that relies on an educated citizenry, shouldn't Americans have a shared knowledge to unite us as a people? Today, when more college graduates can identify Lady Gaga as a musical artist than George Washington as the general at Yorktown, that shared foundation is surely lacking.

There are further implications. Young people have voted in record numbers in the last two presidential elections, yet more than 60 percent couldn't identify term lengths of senators and representatives on their ballots.

The box office hit "Lincoln" is making millions, and for good reason. Not only is it a phenomenal story of one of the most critical periods of American history, but it may actually be new material to many college graduates: Only 17 percent knew the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Daniel Burnett is the press secretary at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.