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The World According to College Students

In the more than 25 years Anders Henriksson has spent teaching history to college students, he has read some "mind-numbing" essays on history exams. Henriksson compiled the most absurd test responses into a book, Ignorance is Blitz: World History According to College Students, formerly known as Non Campus Mentis: World History According to College Students. The result, Henriksson says, is "scary and amusing at the same time." Included: Tips for teaching history.

If such historical events as the Canadian Missile Crisis and the Pershing Gulf War or such historical figures as Joan of Ark (Noah's wife) and Martin Luther Junior (famous for his "If I Had a Hammer" speech) don't sound familiar to you, don't worry. They're all historical corruptions perpetrated on national and world history exams by American and Canadian college students. The mangled moments are included in an assortment of students' absurd history revisions in the book, Ignorance is Blitz: World History According to College Students, (Workman Publishing, New York), compiled by Anders Henriksson.

The anonymous gaffes cited in the book provide examples from about two-dozen colleges, including some of the top schools in the United States, Henriksson tells Education World. About half the examples represent the work of Canadian college students; half were written by U.S. students. Fewer than one-quarter came from Henriksson's own students.

Henriksson, a history professor at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, says he started collecting outlandish essays in the mid 1970s. Although the errors in his book demonstrate the most extreme examples of student confusion, they do raise questions about how well prepared students are in the areas of history and geography, about what they should know, and what they're being taught.

DO YOU LAUGH OR CRY?

"It's scary and amusing at the same time," says Henriksson, who has taught at Canadian and U.S. colleges. "This is not a scientific survey of student preparedness, however. These are the creme de la creme."

The most "mind-numbing" submissions come from students under pressure; students who were not so much ignorant as ill-prepared, Henriksson tells Education World. Computer spell-checking programs also have led to a completely new category of bloopers because they do not check the accuracy of words in context. "The spelling errors are adventurous," Henriksson notes.

He hastens to add, however, that the book is not a criticism of teachers. Society's interest in what is current tends to eclipse attempts to focus on history. "We are bombarded with an array of material, and it is hard for kids to sort out what's important and what's not. We are losing our common body of knowledge. Teachers are battling uphill against an information revolution that devalues the past."

Still, Henriksson, who teaches a world history survey course taken mostly by college freshmen, points out that many students lack the most basic historical and geographical background. At the beginning of a recent term, he says, he distributed a series of basic history and geography questions to 80 of his students. The majority did not know that Dublin is in Ireland. "Either they never absorbed what they were taught, or they were never exposed to it," Henriksson said.

Some students confuse periods of history in their essays, Henriksson notes, citing the following example from the book: "Wars fought in the 1950s and after include the Crimean War, Vietnam, and the Six-Minute War. President Eisenhower resorted to the bully pool pit. John F. Kennedy worked closely with the Russians to solve the Canadian Missile Crisis."

Some students are simply confused, however, including the one who claimed, "Judyism had one big God, named 'Yahoo.'"

Based on his own experience, Henriksson says, the following general understandings represent the basic accurate historical knowledge one can assume of U.S. college students:

  • At some point "in the distant past," the United States fought a war of independence against a major European or Asian power.
  • George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon were presidents of the United States. Washington was the first president and Lincoln was in office a long time ago.
  • The United States still suffers from the legacy of slavery, whenever that occurred. The Civil War, which took place sometime between 1750 and 1930, had something to do with slavery.
  • Adolf Hitler, "a foreigner of some kind," was a bad person.
  • There was at least one world war but not more than three.

WHAT OTHER EDUCATORS SAY

Although Henriksson's book gets attention, it should not be used to judge social studies teaching and learning in the United States, according to Peggy Altoff, of the National Council for the Social Studies. Commenting on the misinformation cited in the book is difficult without knowing the number of students from whom the examples were taken, what questions they were asked, and what material they were tested on, Altoff tells Education World.

"Would I be upset if I got those answers? Yes," she says. "But if it were two out of 35 students, I would work with those two. Without the context, we can only sit and laugh."

An expanding history base means that teachers cover more topics in less depth than in the past, Altoff says. Educators now have to decide whether it is more important that students know certain facts or understand history.

"You cannot teach facts in isolation and expect students to develop historical or geographical understanding," Altoff points out. In the case of the dates of the American Civil War or Lincoln's assassination, understanding the significance of those events is more critical than knowing the exact dates, she maintains. "The more important question is why was the war fought? If [the war] is taught in a way that connects it with what Lincoln did and why it was significant, students could recall the dates when asked."

Although it is true that history needs to be taught in more engaging ways, the basic history knowledge of American students is "pretty poor," according to Dr. Cathy Gorn, an adjunct professor of history at the University of Maryland. Gorn is also executive director of National History Day, a yearlong educational program designed to engage students in grades six through 12 in the study of history. National History Day sponsors an annual contest in which students present research projects on historical topics.

"I do feel frustrated when I have to start from scratch" when teaching American history, Gorn tells Education World. Understanding the context and significance of events is important, she adds, but students still should commit certain dates to memory. "Sometimes my foreign students know more American history than my American students.

"I think we do have sort of a crisis," Gorn says, "and the real problem is at the elementary and secondary level. [Henriksson's book] proves that young Americans are deficient in their knowledge of the past. Certainly, we have a lot to do to educate young people about the past."

TEACHING TIPS

Gorn, who also teaches professional development courses for teachers, says she encourages history teachers to get away from rote learning and involve students in research and to use primary resources to get students more interested in learning history.

Students also have to be taught the value of learning history, Henriksson adds. "We have to redouble our efforts to make sure students get out of school with a good grounding in history and geography," he says. "You can't understand history if you don't understand the stage it took place on. If you want to understand your own society and where it's going, you have to understand where it's been."

Many of his students are unaccustomed to reading, Henriksson says. Exposing them to primary history sources is a good way to get them interested in reading and in the past.

College is not too late to do that, adds Gorn. "They are still willing to have their minds opened," she says of her students. "And it's exciting when someone says, 'I never really understood that before; but now that I do, it's interesting.'"