History courses may increase some students' voting activity


Published: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 6:27 a.m.

If presidential candidates are banking on the youth vote this year, they'd better hope college kids are taking plenty of history courses and chatting politics with their parents, according to recent research.

Facts

Survey samples

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute found that students at some of the nation's most elite universities, including the University of Florida, struggled to pass a 60-question test on U.S. history and government. Here are some samples from the quiz:

1) The Constitution of the United States established what form of government?

A. Direct democracy

B. Populism

C. Indirect democracy

D. Oligarchy

E. Aristocracy

2) The phrase that in America there should be a "wall of separation" between church and state appears in:

A. George Washington's Farewell Address.

B. The Mayflower Compact.

C. The Constitution.

D. The Declaration of Independence.

E. Thomas Jefferson's letters.

3) The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964) was significant because it:

A. Ended the war in Korea.

B. Gave President Johnson the authority to expand the scope of the Vietnam War.

C. Was an attempt to take foreign policy power away from the President.

D. Allowed China to become a member of the United Nations.

E. Allowed for oil exploration in Southeast Asia.

4) Which wall was President Reagan referring to when he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall"?

A. Kremlin Wall

B. Wailing Wall

C. Hadrian's Wall

D. Great Wall of China

E. Berlin Wall

5) Which of the following is NOT among the official powers of Congress?

A. To declare war.

B. To regulate commerce with foreign nations.

C. To receive ambassadors.

D. To create courts lower than the Supreme Court.

E. To approve treaties with foreign nations.



Answers

1) C; 2) E; 3) B; 4) E; 5) Take the test

To test your knowledge on the complete 60-question quiz, visit http://www.isi.org/

Students who have political discussions at home are 3.5 percent more likely to register to vote, and they become increasingly more likely to head to the polls with each history course they take, according to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a private non-profit group based in Delaware.

"This is quite remarkable," said Gary Scott, the institute's senior research fellow. "What you gain in knowledge in your undergraduate years will make you more likely to vote."

The institute's study, released in late October, surveyed 14,000 students at 50 colleges and universities, including the University of Florida.

On average, college seniors were 3 percent more likely to vote for every one course they took in history, economics or political science, the institute found.

The study found that 75 percent of UF students surveyed said they had voted at least once, which was 3 percent higher than the overall average for the 50 participating schools.

Stephen Craig, a UF professor of political science, said he's not surprised to hear research that suggests students whose families talk with them about politics are more likely to vote.

"The family is very much a socializing agent in American politics," he said. "If you grow up in a family that talks politics (engagement increases)."

But if students are headed to the voting booth, they may be pretty clueless about the very government they're helping to fill with leaders, according to the institute's research. College students are woefully uninformed about basic underlying principles of American government and U.S. history, the institute found.

For each university, the institute gave freshmen and senior students a 60-question test about U.S. government and history. The results weren't so good. None of the schools had average grades higher than a "D+," and UF seniors averaged a 53.4 percent ("F") on the test. UF's freshmen did a bit worse with scores of 49 percent.

Of the schools surveyed, half were randomly selected and half were considered "elite" based in part on U.S. News & World Report rankings. UF was among the elites, and its students' average test scores ranked No. 22 among the total of 50 schools surveyed.

The highest test scores came from students at Harvard University, where seniors had an average score of 69.6 percent and freshmen came in at 63.6 percent.

The multiple-choice test included some basic questions about American history, including asking students to identify which country the U.S. was "at odds with" in the "Cold War." The test also included some more advanced questions designed to ascertain students' knowledge of economic theory and classic philosophy.

In the middle of an election year, it's disheartening to see that college students at some of the nation's most expensive universities aren't equipped with basic knowledge about how the U.S. government works, according to Richard Brake, who directs the institute's university reform initiative.

"If these kids don't know the basics then how are they expected to exercise their franchise intelligently," Brake said.

The institute describes itself as a "non-profit, non-partisan" group that aims in part to "strengthen the teaching of America's history and institutions at the college level," according to its Web site. Exposing students' lack of knowledge about bedrock American principles is one way to bring about accountability, Brake said.

"We're looking at a lot of investment both public and private into these schools," he said. "So the leadership of these schools needs to be held accountable. . . . Apparently, they're all not doing well."

Sean Adams, an associate professor of history at UF, said he shares concerns about students' knowledge of history and government. That said, Adams says he's generally concerned about organizations that conduct such studies, many of which reveal themselves as more ideological than academic.

The tests themselves are often "meant to critique the way history is taught in college," Adams said. "One of the things we try to emphasize is that history isn't about the rote (recitation) of facts and dates."

Adams notes that some advocates of a "back to basics" approach to teaching history fail to appreciate positive changes that have happened in college classrooms, which stress the improvement of analytical skills in addition to broad knowledge of historical events.

"I think the fellow traveler of that (back to basics approach) is we need to ignore a lot of the kind of changes that have occurred in scholarship in the last several years," he said. "I think that's kind of a mistake."

Jack Stripling can be reached at 352-374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com.

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