What Do Undergrads Know about History?

Randall Stephens

Some years back I taught an American history survey, 1877-present, at a Florida community college. In an exam one of the students wrote an essay in which he/she placed the American Civil War in the early 20th century. I was shocked. Was I that bad of a teacher? Did incoming students not know the basic chronology of American history? Was this student just particularly thick? Was the state of historical thinking worse than in previous generations?

Several years ago my colleague Joe Lucas interviewed Sam Wineburg in Historically Speaking. Wineburg, author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Temple University Press, 2001), had been studying history education for some time. Has knowledge about the past declined among high school and college students? asked Lucas. "There is something almost comical about a group of adults wringing their hands, yearning for a time that never was," replied Wineburg about the supposed declension.

Regardless of whether students understand less about the past now than, say, they did in 1963, history professors are faced with a problem of figuring out just what a student does or does not know. (I've been thinking about organizing a Historically Speaking forum based around the question: "What Do Undergraduates Know about History?")

History professors enter the classroom every fall and spring, often wondering what they can assume their students know or don't know about history. Will the typical freshman have any knowledge of the basic chronology of western or American history? Do they have any ideas about what made the Roman Empire important? Would they know, approximately, when Rome thrived? (Perhaps they carry with them some general Sunday School knowledge about that or have seen Gladiator.)

What about American history? Would the typical student know who fought the U.S. in the war of 1812? What about the reasons for that war? Could an incoming major or non-major describe what was happening in the U.S. between 1877 and 1917? Could they say anything about what transpired in the American colonies between 1690 and 1740?

I've come to the conclusion that I should assume that most students know little upon entering the class on the first day. But, there are variables here. Depending on where one teaches, the students will know more or less. Perhaps those who scored higher on SATs and ACTs will also come pre-equipped with basic historical knowledge. Students who had good high school history experiences probably also fare better.

It helps to pause and think about this now and then. It's always wise to stop and meditate on your pupils' historical perspective before launching into that intricate lecture on the roots of 18th-century republicanism.