One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln stood on a battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa., and delivered what many consider the greatest speech in the history of our nation. The two-minute speech, punctuated five times by applause, was the climax of a six-hour ceremony honoring those who had died at the Battle of Gettysburg months before. Former Harvard University President Edward Everett, who spoke just before Lincoln, noted that President Lincoln achieved more in those two minutes than he had in two hours of speaking.
Since that November day in 1863, the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” has been become the iconic words of the American experience.
But for how much longer?
According to a multiple choice survey administered by GFK Roper, just 17 percent of college graduates — graduates! — could identify the Gettysburg Address as the source of that phrase.
Too many students graduate from high school without a basic knowledge of history, and colleges do little to address the problem. According to a nationwide survey of nearly 1,100 colleges and universities, “What Will They Learn?” (www.whatwilltheylearn.com), four out of five colleges don’t require students to take even a single foundational course in American history or government.
Even our public colleges and universities — subsidized by the American taxpayer — are failing: Over 60 percent don’t require this most basic of courses. They leave the future generation of American leaders civically disempowered.
Sadly, this trend isn’t limited to history. Three in five colleges don’t require a literature survey; 86 percent don’t require even intermediate level proficiency in a foreign language. And shockingly, 97 percent don’t require basic economics.
Today’s graduates are far more likely to be familiar with Snapchat than the Fireside chats, with Lady Gaga than Lady Macbeth. And unless it’s short enough to fit into the 140-character limitations of a tweet, students probably aren’t reading it.
This isn’t to say that there’s nothing to learn from courses like “Zombie Nation” or “The All-American Hotdog” — both courses at public universities. Education has a unique ability to catch us off guard and ignite an interest we never knew we had. But we have a clear problem with our priorities when only 34 out of nearly 1,100 colleges and universities require a class as crucial as basic economics. While college tuition costs have more than quadrupled in the past 25 years, it’s hard to say what students are getting for all that money. The Department of Education’s own survey of college graduates finds that a majority cannot reliably compare two editorials or compute the cost of office goods.
Four months before Lincoln gave his address, nearly 8,000 men died in the Battle of Gettysburg.
Let us recall what Lincoln told the nation, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
It’s a lesson we still need today — if we only cared to teach it.
Daniel Burnett is the press secretary at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher education nonprofit dedicated to academic excellence.