Opinion » Viewpoint

Negative Learning

What's dumber than a college graduate? A new report on college graduates.



In the immortal words of songwriter Paul Simon, when I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, I remember how much I forgot.

I once knew the dates of the battles of Manila Bay and Antietam. Now I'm lucky to get the War of 1812 right. I could flawlessly recite Rudolph Kipling's epic poem "If" and "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" (the one with Bess the innkeeper's blue-eyed daughter). Likewise, the square root of 4,600 (16), iambic pentameter (da-dum, da-dum), the percentage of body weight that is water (depends), and the products of Mesopotamia (flax) -- all things I once mastered -- now leave me scratching my bald head.

This is called negative learning. You should be alarmed about negative learning and especially about "the coming crisis in citizenship" because the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) says so. The ISI gave a test this year to 14,094 students at 50 colleges. The test consisted of 60 multiple-choice questions on civics and American history.

The results, reported in The Commercial Appeal and other newspapers, purportedly show that there is a lot of negative learning going on at our nation's leading universities, including Yale, Harvard, Duke, and MIT. My alma mater, Michigan, finished 35th, probably because there wasn't a single question about Lloyd Carr or Bo Schembechler. Our own Rhodes College was ranked number one in ISI's "first-ever ranking of colleges by the value added to students' learning of America's history and institutions during the baccalaureate."

I love Rhodes. I know four terrific faculty members in history and political science and would gladly have sent my children there if I didn't live in Memphis. No doubt this latest ranking will soon find its way on to the college's brag sheet.

But the study is a crock, and the conclusion that "prestige doesn't pay off" because Rhodes, Grove City, Spring Arbor, and Calvin College ranked higher than Yale, MIT, and Michigan is dubious at best. Rhodes is a liberal-arts college; MIT specializes in math and engineering. And MIT freshmen and seniors outscored their peers at Rhodes anyway. They just didn't "learn" as much.

The students who did best "were the students who had taken the most courses in relevant disciplines." Duh.

I asked ISI for a copy of the test, hoping to get an easy column and maybe show it off to friends. But they said "since the test will be administered annually, ISI would like to protect the integrity of the test." If they can't come up with new questions about the Revolutionary War, Reconstruction, the Bill of Rights, the Monroe Doctrine, and the New Deal every year, then we really do have a crisis.

I looked into ISI a little. The nonprofit organization (motto: "Educating for Liberty") was founded in 1953. The president, T. Kenneth Cribb, made $425,000 last year. Consultant Lt. Gen. Josiah Bunting, a former adviser to President Ronald Reagan, made $146,500. ISI doesn't tell you this either. I had to find it on its tax form. Other board members include notable conservatives from The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal editorial page staff, the Hoover Institution, and the military.

Through a source at Rhodes whom I cannot identify because he is my squash partner, I was able to obtain an actual question, which I field-tested on an actual college graduate whom I cannot identify because she lives with me. The question: What was the final battle of the Revolutionary War? "The Battle of the Bulge?" this person suggested. Ha! Everyone knows it was the Battle of Bunker Hill.

What I would like to see is a more broadly focused test that would test Americans, ISI included, on their ability to repair a lawn mower, apply a tourniquet, program a computer, operate a sewing machine, do a chin-up, build a presentable dog house without asking Home Depot, and play the first seven notes of "The Victors" on the piano. Then talk to me about negative learning.

The fact is that college graduates forget 75 percent of what they learned in high school unless it involved heavy petting. If the graduate is over the age of 50, the percentage, rounded to the nearest whole number, is 91.6 percent. Trust me.

John Branston is a Flyer staff writer.

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