Sunday, December 21, 2014

Hollywood beats Harvard in history

From page B4 | December 27, 2012 |

By Jay Ambrose

It’s the holidays, college and university students are mostly back at home, and here’s a thought. There’s a great movie out about Abraham Lincoln, and with no classes to interfere, they ought to go to it and learn some American history.

Many students, you may not realize, don’t know beans about their own country’s past. Back some years ago, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni commissioned a study of how much seniors at 55 elite universities knew about fundamental, high school-level historical matters, and guess what. A startling 81 percent got either a “D” or an “F” on a test.

This year, the group commissioned another study, this one of college graduates, and found just a sliver knew James Madison was the father of the Constitution or George Washington the victorious general at Yorktown. Only 17 percent could identify the source of the phrase “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

The issue is not one of student stupidity, but of institutional neglect. The council has conducted another study showing you can get out of most institutions of higher learning without taking the kinds of courses that turn on the lights for you as a human being and a citizen, giving you a broad understanding of this world. By the reckoning of the council, schools ought to be requiring courses in U.S. history or government, science, math, literature, economics, a foreign language and composition, and most are sloppy about it.

Only 2 percent of 1,070 surveyed schools get an “A” for mandating study in at least six of these knowledge areas, and I am proud to say I have taught at one of them, Colorado Christian University. By contrast, one university that received a “D” is supposedly one of the best in America, a place that is unbelievably tough to get into and proffers a degree that opens career doors hither, yon and in between. I mean Harvard, whose failings are the subject of “Privilege,” a splendidly written 2005 book by Ross Gregory Douthat.

Douthat, a conservative columnist at the ultra-liberal New York Times, says being a student at Harvard is more nearly about success than learning, even though, yes, there are lots of brilliant people around, including professors who inflate your grades even as too few offer up terrific classes. One problem is that there’s no guidance about what to take, and the choices available in core curriculum subject areas can be leaps and bounds from anything central and substantive.

All of which brings us to the “Lincoln” movie. Let’s first get the criticism out of the way, namely that there are some false moments lessening instead of focusing the drama. But the movie as a whole is an intense experience of a great man pulling off the great accomplishment of winning a House of Representatives vote furthering the 13th Amendment that ended slavery in the United States.

I am a fan of Lincoln and books about him and found the depiction of him incredibly convincing, as did some historians who also have commented that the movie is basically sound in its wondrously moving portrayal of events.

The short of it is that someone could go to this movie and learn more about a crucial episode in American history than during a four-year stay at one of hundreds of colleges, including the fact that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was the source of the phrase about government of, by and for all of us. They would not have to spend a ton on tuition, either, or end up owing enough to the federal government’s ultra-inflationary student loan program to be in debt for years.

Our universities need reform, serious, tuition-reducing, curriculum-improving reform that also sees professors putting teaching above publishing as the way to keep from perishing. Here and there are hints of steps in hopeful directions, such as Texas and Florida developing online degree programs costing a total of $10,000. Minus some experiments that work, the hurt will be grievous to a whole slew of people, and to something else as well: our American future.

— Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. Reach him at



Special to The Enterprise

  • Recent Posts

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this newspaper and receive notifications of new articles by email.

  • .


    What’s new at UCD? Construction projects abound

    By Tanya Perez | From Page: A1 | Gallery

    No-nonsense Musser voted Citizen of the Year

    By Dave Ryan | From Page: A1 | Gallery

    Sharing a meal, and so much more

    By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A1 | Gallery

    Brinley Plaque honors environmental stalwart

    By Dave Ryan | From Page: A1 | Gallery

    Raul Castro: Don’t expect detente to change Cuban system

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    Police seek help in finding runaway twin girls

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A2

    Downtown crash results in DUI arrest

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

    March trial date set in Davis molest case

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

    North Korea proposes joint probe over Sony hacking

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    AP sources: Cops’ killer angry over Garner death

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    Luminaria display planned in West Davis

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Soup’s On will benefit NAMI-Yolo

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Pedal around Davis on weekly bike ride

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Supplies collected for victims of abuse

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Donors, volunteers honored on Philanthropy Day

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3 | Gallery

    Enterprise plans Christmas, New Year’s holiday hours

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Surprise honor is really nice, dude

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5 | Gallery

    Konditorei presents free holiday concert

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5



    E-cigs surpass regular cigarettes among teens

    By The Associated Press | From Page: B4

    It’s not a pretty picture

    By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B4

    Google me this: Should I hit that button?

    By Marion Franck | From Page: B4

    Too late to pick a fight

    By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5

    All police need to humanize

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A10

    Are we only a fair-weather bike city?

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A10

    Join us in making our world more just

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A10

    Tom Meyer cartoon

    By Debbie Davis | From Page: A10

    The electronic equivalent of war

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A11

    The Green House effect: Homes where the elderly thrive

    By New York Times News Service | From Page: A11



    Stenz shines as DHS girls take a tournament title

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    Aggie Manzanares not quite finished carrying the rock

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    UCD women look to improve, despite game at No. 7 Stanford

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    Second-half run spurs Aggie men to 8-1

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

    49ers fall to San Diego in overtime

    By The Associated Press | From Page: B10







    Marrone Bio expands its product reach in Latin America

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Sierra Northern Railway names CEO

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

    Sink your teeth into Vampire Penguin

    By Wendy Weitzel | From Page: A4 | Gallery





    Comics: Sunday, December 21, 2014

    By Creator | From Page: B8