Too Many Kids Go To College: A Conversation With Myself

This is the first of many conversations I’ll be having with myself this semester on this subject.

William Say, Matt. I heard you were teaching this semester. Where?

Matt At a place Russell Kirk would have called “Behemoth U.” A good school with a fine reputation.

William Lot of students, eh?

Matt More than you can shake a diploma at.

William What are you teaching?

Matt Statistics, of course, a mid-level Calculus section, and a class that can best be described as Math For Those Who Cannot Do Math.

William What’s that?

Matt Everybody has to have a math credit to graduate, and this is one of the courses designed to give that credit. Everybody is supposed to be able to solve algebraic equations before enrolling.

William Can they?

Matt They cannot. First day of class, I gave them this one for fun (all answers were anonymous):

    (3x – 7)/4 = x + 4.

William How’d they do?

Matt About 15% figured it out. Most wrong answers were, let us say, curious. But mostly they just didn’t attempt it.

William College is about learning, you know. No doubt, they’ll refresh their memories as the semester continues. Not everybody can remember high school algebra on command.

Matt I also asked them, “What is one-third of one-half?”

William They must have done better on that one.

Matt Sure. About 20% got it. The wrong answers were confusing. Some said 1/7, a few said, 1/8, 1/4, 1/16. One said “1.3333”. But most didn’t answer.

William I don’t like your tone. This is the first day math class for people who just aren’t good at math. Some people aren’t, you know.

Matt Yes, some people aren’t. But you know, I also asked these questions to the other classes, and those had stronger mathematical prerequisites. More knew the answers, but only in the calculus class did a majority do well.

William See? There’s hope!

Matt Yeah, but all of the students in the calculus class should have answered correctly, not just most.

William I still think you’re being too harsh. This was the first day.

Matt I also asked them the year the American Civil War started.

William You asked math students that? That’s obviously not fair.

Matt Are you telling me that college students shouldn’t know the answer?

William Well, not quite. But not everybody will remember the exact year.

Matt One student said 1954.

William Obviously a typo.

Matt Didn’t look like one. Others said 1701, 1740, “1770s”, 1779, 1846, 1887, 1945. Most just didn’t answer, but a few jotted down “who cares?”, or something like “This is statistics?”

William Well, it isn’t statistics you know. Students wouldn’t think to come prepared to class to answer questions on history.

Matt Only a handful knew the exact date; about 10% knew it plus or minus 10 years.

William Come on. They just weren’t ready.

Matt Want me to tell you the answers they gave me to, “In what year did the French Revolution begin?”

William I think we can skip it.

Matt Good thing, because I had the idea from the answers that they had never heard of the event.

William It’s the fault of the high schools. They were probably never taught.

Matt I can’t disagree with you, but don’t you think that college students should know the answer, even just to name the proper century?

William They’ll probably learn as they go along.

Matt I was happiest with the answer to, “Who wrote the play King Lear?” More than half, spelling aside, knew.

William So it’s not all bad news.

Matt But almost nobody knew who wrote Paradise Lost.

William High school again. They almost never teach poetry.

Matt They did better with naming a composer who worked in the eighteenth century. Those who knew, about two thirds, said either Mozart or Beethoven.

William That must have pleased you.

Matt Not one person—not one in all the classes—knew who Thucydides was. Some guessed, “Greek mathematician.”

William Obviously, then, these are clever kids. They knew that you were a mathematician and were thus likely to ask about other famous ones.

Matt But, of course, I didn’t.

William I suppose not. It is a hard question, though.

Matt Only if you don’t know the answer.

William Oh, that makes a lot of sense.

Matt I asked them what was the last book they read, which wasn’t assigned to them. About half gave answers. My Bookie Wook (which is a real book), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Harry Potter series, Quiet Strength, many in the Twilight series, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and similar others.

William At least they’re reading.

Matt One wrote, “I don’t like reading.”

William Well…

Matt This is the same statistics student who answered 16.6 for the multiplying fractions question.

William Like I said, not everybody…

Matt And for the algebra question this student said, “I don’t do algebra.”

William Maybe he was having a bad day.

Matt Maybe.


  1. Lilly

    I remember when we revised our education policy to push everyone into college and dropped vocational education programs. That policy came about as liberals were accusing America of being racist and sexist for the quota inequality of races and sexes chosing and qualifying for college versus those students participating in vocational training and not going to college. Liberals set about social engineering for quota equality in these areas of education which resulted, as always, in harming and hobbling the least perferred group and adopting lower standards for the more perferred group. No longer was one’s choice and qualification for college based on performance, choice and ability; rather based on Liberalism’s social engineering whim. At the same time, since liberals were condemning vocational training as something undesirable or less desirable than college for students who were not going to college, Americans began rejecting vocational education for their children.

    Prior to this social engineering campaign, plenty of very smart people chose not to go to college, rather were attracted to honing a skill in some area of life and the economy. Likewise people who were not really ready for college would go and drop out. There was no shame in not being a college graduate and there was no superiority granted or assumed about college educated people. College prep courses were said to be racist because the outcome in passing was quota unequal and so college prep programs in high schools were watered down and eventually became the elitist step child of education as did “smart” students (gifted and talented). Since we no longer push, value and nurture serious students in college prep programs, the economy has made up for the loss by importing foreigners for advanced education and America’s public schools have been abandoned to liberalism’s lowest common denominator with the central interests being the success and happiness of teacher union participants. In this way, the social engineering also diminished the value of the whole teaching profession.

    Before liberalism’s demolishing of our education system, Americans knew that one could be a graduate from Harvard yet totally dysfunctional in life and likewise, someone could be a carpenter and extremely wise and successful in life. The American dream was not material as it is today. It was the freedom of self determination that was a product of constitutional liberty. People’s value was not economic as much as it was the content of their character and their honor. In this way, one’s graduation of college or one’s taltent as a carpenter or janitor were on equal footing to attain respect in our society. That had to go because there was quota inequality in the character measurment of human success, too. Americans were once taught that one’s mental ability (IQ) was not the measurement of their value and talent. God gave each of us talents and gifts and as long as we did not waste it, we were good to go as Americans. Some might be the best parents or have great artistic abilities or great compassion, for example, so the talents and value of people was not based on purely material, higher education outcomes and people with higher education might be less talented in areas of human expression than a janitor.

    In summary, once liberals, using race and sex baiting, asserted themselves as the determiners of who was to prepare for college in high school and who was to be denied college based on race, people lost the assurance of self determination. To make that work, liberals had to demolish college track programs to acheive quota equality in outcome there. Since qualifications for these two tracks of life were thrown out the window in the name of quota equality in outcomes, middle class Americans rejected the whole idea and demanded that all go to college and those who qualify will graduate and those who don’t qualify will drop out. Vocational education had to be demolished because, with no standards beyond race quotas, it became a weapon of oppression as liberals arbiturarily determined who would be assigned to the program and denied college preparation. For the targeted group (white males) this assured the end of a boy making the choice, even though academics were difficult, to work and study hard to pull themselves through the program and through college (if he could get in) because their quotas were too high. Only minorities and girls could have this choice and struggle in life. We still have some vocational training in high schools, but it is nothing like it was before the social engineering took place.

    P.S. One other component of American education was demolished by liberals in their efforts to use schools to the Union’s political advantage. We had history. Social studies once consisted of civics where everyone learned about the constitution and why it was constructed and what it meant as the founders created it. It was assumed and required that everyone, no matter where they were from, respect and strive to assure one another’s constitutional freedom. Freedom was what was a common mission among Americans – what we all shared in common and respected. The American dream and culture were known as the outcome of living American life in freedom. Rather than today’s race based tribalism where foreign loyalities and idenities and today’s race doctrines were installed, we taught kids life skills in junior high and high school. We had cooking, sewing, and studies about American business industry so we would have an idea of what we might want to do after school or prepare for in college. We learned about farming and gardening. We learned how to balance a check book and had professionals and worker come in and talk to us about their area of learning, work or production. We were expected and drilled to memorize basic math tables and were expected to do simple math on the spot, in our heads. Everyone had to read and we had tutors and whatever it took to get kids reading. By choice, we learned to type and steno skills, electrical skills, auto mechanics, carpentry. We had adults come in and give us suggestions on summer jobs and businesses we could run like house painting, grass mowing or window washing. They would go over how to create a successful little business for our summer employment. Many of these life skills and exposures to the world in preparation for life would be different now but alot still applies to kids who today, get out of high school and can barely tie their shoes and add two numbers in their heads.

  2. JH

    We all know that education starts at home!

    Hey, I thought that, to build up students’ self-esteem, you were supposed to ask questions to which they have answers. For example, who stared Edmund in Twilight? Nothing about star trek though. There aren’t many Startrek fans. *_^

  3. Ken

    This blog entry begs the question, “why this blog entry?”

    Hopefully its not because the kids are THAT unprepared?

    Good thing you didn’t ask them the dates of the US’ Revolutionary War or when the Colonies became an independent country — a true trick question:

    1775 the Colonies created a Congress, but applied it to getting relief from King George…who later that year declared its members traitors; some consider this the start date.

    19 Apr 1775 – Battles of Lexington & Concord; first battle between Colonials & British soldiers

    2 Jul 1776 – Congress declared independence,
    4 Jul 1776 – the formal Declaration document is ratified
    19 Oct 1781 – Battle of Yorktown…which King George didn’t hear about until sometime in November…is considered the final decisive battle…

    but a skirmish here & there continued with the last being considered 10 Mar 1783 (a naval battle off Cape Canaveral).

    Then, the Treaty of Paris has this history:

    3 Sep 1783 – Signed
    14 Jan 1784 – Ratified by Congress
    9 Apr 1784 – Ratified by King George
    12 May 1784 – Ratification documents exchanged in Paris

    The usual [informed] dates for the American Revolutionary War are 19 Apr 1775 to 19 Oct 1781/10 Mar 1783/3 Sep 1783 (with 3 Sep 1783 being considered the end date). The 4 July date most of us associated with the war is a political milestone rather than battle; and this milestone is well within the chronological boundaries of the war. This is unusual as most wars are associated with the date they began or ended–by battle/violence (e.g. WW-I began with an assasination; WW-II began when Germany attacked Poland; & for the US when Japan attacked the US Navy in Hawaii; the Korean War began when the North invaded the South across the 38th parallel — technically that war is not over as the armistance is effectively a “cease fire” but not formal cessation of hostilities; the War of 1812 began by formal declaration after a variety of harrassments).

    Most people [US citizens] don’t have a clue when the Revolutionary war ended [unless they recently naturized, that is] & most don’t realize battle began long before the Declaration of 2/4 July 1776.

    And the “Tomb of the Unknown [Soldier]” of the Revolutionary War is located in a number of places, with Philadelphia, PA being the most notable. Alexandria, VA has one and you could be steps away from it & not even realize it (I was, one evening some years ago, and the single light bulb above it belied its significance that night):

    Its sad that we pay so little attention & give so little regard to our country’s founding.

  4. Bernie

    I am pretty sure that others will have simialr tales of gross ignorance on the part of our youth. Obviously as you get older you pick up new facts, you read, and you probably see more movies. But I fear that the next generation has lost certain habits that make them less capable of dealing with reality.

    In my office we used to have group lunches, where people most of whom cam from tier 1 or tier 2 colleges, would have free wheeling conversations. When someone brought up an item – say the terrible casualty rate amolng US soldiers in Iraq, I would ask them a contextual question like how many combat casualties were there in the Iran/Iraq War? What is the population of Iraq? What is the population of Iran? How many Americans died in the Civil War? How many Americans died on D-Day? When was D-Day? How many people died last year in DC? Detroit? Boston? What is the population of Boston? (My all time favorite question was to ask what percentage of their daily pay did they spend on lunch – many went to Whole Foods to buy the good stuff.)

    Now these are pretty competent folks in general. They work hard and generally do a good job. However, while they could reel off the winners of American Idol (something I cannot do) and the spouses or partners of various celebrities (Who cares?) – they had not a clue as to the more general realities that surrounded them. This is very scary to me because they all get to vote.

    Well should these kids have gone to college? Yes, but they need more teachers like Matt and fewer whimps like William!! They should be made to dissect the WSJ everyday, a magazine like the Economist every week and a serious scientific magazine every month. Why the WSJ and the economist – largely because they get the facts right.

  5. Adam H

    It’s a pretty sad indictment of the public high school system, in my opinion. I had a college roommate who grew up somewhere urban and got a full ride in part because of his colorful background. He was a nice guy, and he was pretty embarrassed about his lack of education. His college buddies taught him more math than he learned in 12 years of high school, and he ended up with an A in his “Math for people who can’t do math” class (although grade inflation surely had something to do with that).

    Point being, while some (most) kids don’t give a crap, some just need to be given a chance. While we agree that college is not the place to learn the basics, the fault is with the high school first, the college admissions board second, and the student last.

  6. Adam H

    Oh no I forgot to blame the parents! Them first, then the schools.

  7. BobN

    To be fair, Paradise Lost is generally covered in freshman literature courses and not in High School. And to make your students come up with a negative number answer is just outrageous 😉

    I do agree with your general premise that too many students are going to college, but unfortunately too many employers are making a college degree an employment requirement for jobs that really don’t need such a degree.

  8. Doug M

    If they are reading “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, does that mean that they are Jane Austin fans? Seems awfully dumb to read a parody, if you don’t know the original.

    I wonder how poorly I would have fared on you test when I was a college student. It is tough to remember what you didn’t know when you were 18. Certainly, I knew the start of the civil war. I knew my US history. I didn’t know European history, and I could not have told you when the apple landed on Newton’s head, when Germany became a country, or why England and Spain were at war in the 16th century. I would have hit the French Revolution within 10 years. But that would have been because I knew that it fit between the Revolutionary war and the war of 1812. I would not have known Thucydides.

    I wasn’t a reader in High School, and I probably would have answered the “What was the last thing you read for fun?” question with “Batman and the Killing Joke”. I was into mid-century sci-fi as a college student.

    I would have been able to answer the math questions, but I will work on a problem for more than 10 minutes before I give up, which seems to be the key aptitude to excel in math.

  9. rich

    Maybe your “I don’t like reading” student gave you the answer as a percentage and missed off the ‘%’ sign? I’m sure you could give more marks if you tried harder.

  10. Ari

    ” I was happiest with the answer to, “Who wrote the play King Lear?” More than half, spelling aside, knew.”

    Well, to be fair, the English themselves couldn’t agree on that until recently…


    I wonder, though, what percent of the previous generation could do the same? I often question the arguments regarding the degradation of society– the shiftless stupider youth and whatnot– because I just don’t have faith in the Boomers to have been that much better.

    Hell, men of Thucydides’, the great Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War, time were already saying how the youth were but shadows of their great era. And so it will continue when my generation has kids and calls them worse than our generation.


    But the fact of the matter was that the US was racist and sexist compared to today. Ask any of my older family members about the Jew quotas at major universities. Or the “no Kikes” signs at restaurants. Or how they had to go to the Borscht Belt if they wanted a vacation, because many places didn’t want those dirty Jews around.

    It’s undeniable that things were much less egalitarian in the past. The question is whether the policies today made things materially better.

    “Social studies once consisted of civics where everyone learned about the constitution and why it was constructed and what it meant as the founders created it. It was assumed and required that everyone, no matter where they were from, respect and strive to assure one another’s constitutional freedom.”

    I studied this in high school as well. Quite in depth, actually.

    “Rather than today’s race based tribalism where foreign loyalities and idenities and today’s race doctrines were installed, we taught kids life skills in junior high and high school.”

    Sure, this can go too far, but is it such a terrible thing that I learned about the cultures in the homes of classmates of mine who were Latino, Chinese, Jewish, etc.? Through this, I was certainly better equipped to be enriched by the excitement of life abroad, as well as through my wife’s family, who are Chinese.

    I’m not saying that some of this can’t be taken too far, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. It’s nice that I was able to go to school and not be told that I was going to hell for being Jewish like my grandmother.

    “The American dream was not material as it is today. It was the freedom of self determination that was a product of constitutional liberty. People’s value was not economic as much as it was the content of their character and their honor. In this way, one’s graduation of college or one’s taltent as a carpenter or janitor were on equal footing to attain respect in our society.”

    I suspect DeToqueville might disagree with you there.

  11. Bernie

    Of course there is that bias. I really believe that we have made progress. The folks in my office are very tolerant and open-minded. They demonstrate far less prejudice on the basis of race, religion and sexual orientation than did my parents. It is not all bad. I definitely agree with Matt Ridley – the world today is a better place than it was 50 years ago. I am sure that in time my colleagues (not all of whom were young) will pick up some of these facts. However, civilizations do crumble and largely through the over-indulgence of their young – a failing of which I may well be guilty. (See for example David McClelland’s classic study The Achieving Society. )

  12. Briggs


    Don’t forget that the men who were making that statement during the Peloponessian War were correct.

    And just because our grandparents make the same lament we do does not prove that their were wrong. If standards are on a steady, downward path, then both your grandparents and we are correct.

  13. Katie

    It used to be that “college prep” in high school was just that. Maybe students didn’t have to write a paper on Paradise Lost, but they certainly knew who John Milton was due to their survey course on English literature (distinct from American literature). It also used to be that college prep students took a course in global history and had a passing acquaintance with notable events and personages (including Thucydides). The understanding was that if students took a fancy to a particular historical period or grew to admire a particular writer/school or found that they liked chemistry, then they could take college courses that delved into and expanded their knowledge of that subject matter when the time came. College prep laid the foundation for what could be a truly exciting liberal arts education. I would guess that many of the students who answered the questionnaire did not emerge from a college prep environment, but came from a general studies background, which admittedly demands less of the students, and does not provide many opportunities for gaining and exercising information/knowledge.

    Many students learn about the “easy A” early in life, and opt for general studies instead of the more challenging college prep curriculum. While the depth of the knowledge of the general studies student might be lacking, their GPA is intact (and could be higher than their college prep counterparts).

  14. Bernie

    The WSJ used to print the graduation exams for 8th grade. They were eye opening in terms of expectations.

  15. Myron Mesecke

    Then there’s my daughter. First year of college, taking Calculus 2 and is bored. She called last night and said that before the instructor could finish writing a problem on the board she had done the problem in her head without using a calculator. She also said that the 22 page workbook assessment for her Physics class was easy. Me? I would have been in the group talked about in this article.

  16. RK

    The apathy of college students is one reason I could never summon the courage to teach at the university level. One semester of TA’ing for Computing 101 at Cornell was enough for me. The empty stares and the constant yawning in class (the sessions were before 9 AM in the morning) told me in uncertain terms that I was wasting my and their time. The students were there for the motion, not because they wanted to.

  17. Katie

    Such exhortation from our government sounds adorably old-fashioned today.

    A Nation at Risk (1983)


    To Parents

    You know that you cannot confidently launch your children into today’s world unless they are of strong character and well-educated in the use of language, science, and mathematics. They must possess a deep respect for intelligence, achievement, and learning, and the skills needed to use them; for setting goals; and for disciplined work. That respect must be accompanied by an intolerance for the shoddy and second-rate masquerading as “good enough.”

    You have the right to demand for your children the best our schools and colleges can provide. Your vigilance and your refusal to be satisfied with less than the best are the imperative first step. But your right to a proper education for your children carries a double responsibility. As surely as you are your child’s first and most influential teacher, your child’s ideas about education and its significance begin with you. You must be a living example of what you expect your children to honor and to emulate. Moreover, you bear a responsibility to participate actively in your child’s education. You should encourage more diligent study and discourage satisfaction with mediocrity and the attitude that says “let it slide”; monitor your child’s study; encourage good study habits; encourage your child to take more demanding rather than less demanding courses; nurture your child’s curiosity, creativity, and confidence; and be an active participant in the work of the schools. Above all, exhibit a commitment to continued learning in your own life. Finally, help your children understand that excellence in education cannot be achieved without intellectual and moral integrity coupled with hard work and commitment. Children will look to their parents and teachers as models of such virtues.

    To Students

    You forfeit your chance for life at its fullest when you withhold your best effort in learning. When you give only the minimum to learning, you receive only the minimum in return. Even with your parents’ best example and your teachers’ best efforts, in the end it is your work that determines how much and how well you learn. When you work to your full capacity, you can hope to attain the knowledge and skills that will enable you to create your future and control your destiny. If you do not, you will have your future thrust upon you by others. Take hold of your life, apply your gifts and talents, work with dedication and self-discipline. Have high expectations for yourself and convert every challenge into an opportunity.

  18. Ari


    You are right that they are not necessarily wrong. However, they are not necessarily right, either. They’re oversimplifying matters.

    I actually see this as a multifaceted problem whose other roots are often ignored. It’s so easy to say lax standards are to blame while ignoring another problem: With the massive proliferation in knowledge available in the world today, some things will simply not be learned. I’m not saying that we should not study math, science, and classical literature. The fact that your students had such poor mathematical abilities was what bothered me the most.

    I’m saying that some people will not be able to take in Thucydides. Some people will not be able to take in all of The Bard’s works. They may take in the workings of NAND memory instead. Or The Tale of Genji. They are not necessarily worse off for it, either.

    I agree wholeheartedly that not everyone should go to college. I’m just not convinced that a knowledge of Thucydides (whom I have read, for the record) is necessarily a good measure of college-readiness. I didn’t read Thucydides until maybe my 3rd year of undergrad, and I would be just as glad to hear that a student had read Virgil instead, given the time constraints. For better or for worse, as history continues (despite Fukuyama), we will have to cut some things. What to cut?

  19. Ari

    “It used to be that “college prep” in high school was just that. Maybe students didn’t have to write a paper on Paradise Lost, but they certainly knew who John Milton was due to their survey course on English literature (distinct from American literature). It also used to be that college prep students took a course in global history and had a passing acquaintance with notable events and personages (including Thucydides).”

    OK, I realize that I’m probably unusual in a number of regards, but… I learned all of this. I read much of “Paradise Lost” in high school. Didn’t read Thucydides (read general history of the era.) I did tons of history classes in high school.

    Now, it may be because I did mostly AP courses that I was somehow insulated, but I hear about this and I wonder: what the hell were these other kids learning?

  20. PJ

    “Hell, men of Thucydides’, the great Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War, time were already saying how the youth were but shadows of their great era.”

    To be fair. The youth of Thucydides’ time WERE shadows of the elders’ great era. The older ones beat back the Persians and presided over the rise of Athens as one of the most powerful forces on the Mediterranean. The youth consisted of spoiled layabouts like Alcibiades and selfish nouveau riche douches like Cleon who demagogued their way into power and subsequently led Athens, and the Greek states more generally, into ruin.

  21. PJ

    “In this way, one’s graduation of college or one’s taltent as a carpenter or janitor were on equal footing to attain respect in our society.””

    Um. . . horsehockey. The race angle is the easy one to pick this apart, but even if you were the WASPyest WASP to ever WASP you would still be treated like dirt if you weren’t well off. How respectful was it of factory managers to lock their employees in behind chained up gates with unsafe machinery that would catch on fire and kill everyone inside because there was no way out?
    What magical sepia-tinted time period are you talking about when we had this pre-liberal golden age of harmony and rainbows and unicorns? It certainly wasn’t the 20s if “The Great Gatsby” is any indication. Nor is it the 40s, 50s, or 60s if any of the social commentary of those periods are indications either. And to suggest that the 70s up until now were is just ridiculous.

    This is just a rose-tinted view of a world that you were never old enough to fully understand, even if you are old enough to have inhabited it.

  22. You could have asked questions about WWII and received the same results, I fear. Lilly is spot on.

  23. Ari


    Except, you know, for the whole thing about racism. And the great egalitarian past when the honorable worker was respected alongside the honorable lawyer. I mean, it’s not like we had any racism in the 1930s, when it was pretty much accepted that blacks were inferior and Jews were swindlers.

    Education wasn’t reformed because of some evil union conspiracy. Education was reformed in a misguided attempt to make everyone equal and happy. The intent, for better or for worse, was good-hearted. Misguided in many ways, but not a bunch of sneering unions (y’know, those once-egalitarian workers) finding ways to undermine America as we once knew it.

    Also, “The American dream was not material as it is today.”?

    The American dream, from day one, was material: it was self-sufficiency through financial wealth, land-ownership, and access to affordable material goods. Two cars in every garage, a dog in every yard, chickens in every pot, etc. etc.

    That’s about as material as it gets. It’s just now, now that we can afford such silly things as iPads and frivolities like GPSes in cars that we start asking ourselves, “How much is too much?”

    Even de Tocqueville mentioned that Americans were often willing to put material well-being ahead of civic involvement– back in the 19th century.

    Sorry, but Lilly is NOT spot on, and I don’t for a second think you can’t see where her errors lie.

  24. I vote for Lilly.

    Unfettered liberalism gave us reverse racism, which is still racism, and America is MORE racist today than it was in 1950. Your memory of those times, Ari, is tainted by modern propaganda, the meisters of which would like you to believe the worst about America.

    The crushing decline in intelligence is not solely the fault of our decrepit public school system. TV is much to blame.

    But let’s revisit Behemoth U. I suggest that you pass around your test in the Faculty Club, Matt, and see how many full, tenured professors can answer the questions.

  25. TomVonk

    Want me to tell you the answers they gave me to, “In what year did the French Revolution begin?”
    Too hard for americans .
    Well actually my personnal experience is that US citizens have only some (vague) clues abut US history and geography . Not even american history and geography – the one of the USA .
    This is rather independent from education and PhDs may not know where is Liubiana while a random guy who travelled a bit may at least suspect the approximate country .
    In my experience it is also rather independent of time – I found the level of historical and geographical knowledge as low 30 years ago as it is today .

    That’s why the experiment is biased .
    US are in the middle of nowhere and have just a bit more than 2 centuries of modern culture and history .
    So it is not astounding that for a crushing majority of americans in college or elsewhere , anything that’s more than 2 centuries or 2 000 km away is terra incognita .
    If Europe is unknown , you can certainly imagine how appaling the results would be if the questions asked related to Asia .
    When lived Lao Tzu ? Even when and where lived Buddha ? Who was Meiji ?
    I think that a crushing majority of general culture percolates through your environment and not from school classes . If your grandfather served the emperor Franz Josef and you have a friend whose grand grand grand father was Alsace governor for Napoleon and corresponded with Lafayette , then history and geography is a kind of family matter .
    If you were born and live in Anselmo Nebraska (I take this example because I visited the place) then there is not much that percolates .
    I am not saying that Europeans or Asians are necessarily better educated than US americans .
    But they live in an environment where much more percolates .

  26. Bernie

    de Tocqueville said a lot of things but overall was tremendously impressed by the energy, vitality and democratic impulses he found in America in 1832. He also commended Americans on their civic virtues and sense of community: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. …The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the Antipodes; In this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.” America still has a greater level of membership in community service organizations, e.g., Rotary, Lions, Kiwanas, Shriners, than any other country.

    There are some big differences and certainly countries that had empires know more geography (and history) than those who did not! However, I think a bigger difference is generational. As I said before my business had 30 to 40 pretty well educated folks. Only a handful read the WSJ or the NYT on a regular basis. None of my own three kids regularly read a newspaper or, I fear, listen or watch the news outside of their narrow fields of interest. We collectively lose something with this lack of context. The new media is great in terms of accessibility but I fear that is has some unintended consequences – like spell checker on Word.

  27. JH

    I don’t disagree with the main point that many college students are ill-prepared, I know they are since I have been teaching for about 25 years (including my TA years) and had gone through college education in a different country. However, the phenomenon also exits in other countries, e.g., my native country in part because many more students are attending colleges. They can’t point their fingers at liberals because there aren’t any so called liberals there. Let me tell you though, the top students are just as sharp as those of my generations.

    I, a tenured full professor at a good school with a fine reputation , cannot answer some of the questions. Which didn’t stop me from getting As in organic chemistry and pathophysiology classes that I took for personal enrichment.

    My kids, both 16, probably can’t remember the exact year the American Civil War started, but they are well read. We probably can name a few books that other people haven’t read. No, I am not refereeing to Chinese books. Perhaps, young adults like to read fantasy genre, or they know more about computers than you , or how to draw better than you. My point is that many young adults have different interests; who is to say that your interest is more noble and righteous, and what you want them to know is exactly what they should know.

    Believe or not, professors, liberal or not, all want our students to learn. Whether they are skillful teachers is a different story. My view is that I am here to teach them and help them learn. I don’t need to see whether they know what I think they should know, which can be disheartening and often not beneficial. Young adults might not learn certain things in high school, but better late than never.

    Keep in mind also that some of us are smart and probably have high IQs, it’s awfully hard to measure up to us or our standards. Also maybe my glasses are rose tinted, I only see brilliant, smart young adults in my social circle. I see how hard some of them had worked to get into an Ivy League school or medical school. Why? I, and probably you, know exactly why. I don’t wish to elaborate on this, and I wouldn’t say that it’s because that most of my friends are liberals (again, whatever liberal means).

    Anti racist? If one hasn’t experienced any racism, I am not sure if one can truly understand what it is. This is just my view.

  28. Briggs


    There is a vast difference between unprepared and unable. If they are unprepared but able, let the student first prepare (at, say, a community college, or by reading independently) then enroll (something like this was my path). If they are unable, do not let them enroll for the sake of the budget, or misguided notions of “fairness”, or whatever.

    As you say, there are too many kids enrolling. I have argued many times that this must lead to a diminution in the material taught. That means that the best students suffer. But it means that the worst students suffer, too, because they are led to believe that they are educated.

    “If one hasn’t experienced any racism, I am not sure if one can truly understand what it is. ” Thus, if one hasn’t experienced murder, rape, beatings, slavery, etc. they cannot truly understand what they are?

  29. Bernie

    The initial indicators Matt used for gauging readiness for a college level math class make perfect sense to me and the performance of what appears to be the majority of these students is shocking.

    Our expectations of what a HS grad should know or be capable of doing have both changed and fallen. Performance has fallen in basic areas that are likely to limit the students’ capabilities in the future.

    In 1984 I worked on a study of the education and utilization of engineers in the US. At that point Japan was producing 3 time the number of hard science graduates that we were and that Asian American were 3 times as likely to major in the hard sciences as non-Asian American students. I am not suggesting that everyone should major in hard sciences – but the expectations and demands on those students are far greater than on other majors in most schools. The Deans of the Engineering schools, who were on the NRC panel, were pushing for a 5 year first degree to ensure competence, while years abroad were becoming fashionable for liberal arts majors. My son went from being a B student in Engineering at a good tier 2 school to an A student in History. He did not get any smarter. Our lowering of performance expectations and standards will have real consequences in the future for our economic well being.

  30. Ken

    On a lighter note, when I was an undergrad at a Midwester Big Name University (with a well known football team), but taking courses at one of the “expansion campuses” I noticed one year the new students included a sizeable crop of really good-looking girls, including a lot of brunettes (non-blonds). This definate new trend coincidentally coincided with the opening of some new facilities & the expansion of the student body (by “expansion of the student body” I mean the increase in the overall number of students attending & not an increase in the size of individual students; that trend wasn’t scheduled for another decade or so). I knew someone that worked in the admissions office of one of the colleges & sure enough, they DID lower the entrance standards. Draw from that what you will.

    As for trends in which the older folks bemoan the declining standards & so forth of the youth, supposedly someone found such a lament incribed in an ancient Egyption hieroglyph (by a temple priest as I recall). If this reflects a steady declining generation-to-generation trend I can’t imagine the lofty standards they had 3000-ish years ago. I can only conclude that there MUST be some step-function sort of reset that occurs to maintain long-term parity, more or less (like, occassionally, the shorter Presidential candidate must win, and, this or that party must regain control of Congress despite the direction of skirt length changes).

    Seriously, populations & their values cycle thru a generational cycle, with two & four generations reflecting the complete cycle (depending on who is doing the model & their area of focus). A “good” (concise) portrayal of this was reported as background material by Harry S. Dent in his book, “The Great Boom Ahead” where he predicted the then upcoming bull [stock] market quite well (many consider is subsequent books as inferior, tending to capitalize on the fame of this effort, perhaps even pandering to attract sales).

  31. JH

    Mr. Briggs,

    No knowing the answers to your questions means they are unable? Unable to lead a happy life? Unable to do abstract math? Unable to learn any subject?

    Plenty of high school graduates are rejected, and many freshmen have decided to drop out of college. There are higher-level classes and research opportunities for better students. No one is lead to believe they are educated, young adults do know whether they’ve learned anything from your class!

    Thus, if one hasn’t experienced murder, rape, beatings, slavery, etc. they cannot truly understand what they are?

    Obviously, I would have been dead if I were murdered! I can’t speak for you. But, no, personally, I don’t know how it would feel and affect my outlook on life to have been beaten, raped and slaved. I can tell you how it has affected me to be discriminated though.

  32. Adam H

    “If one hasn’t experienced any racism, I am not sure if one can truly understand what it is.”

    My wife has been rejected from med school because of her race. Several less qualified applicants were accepted over her simply because the school had met the “caucasian female quota” for that year.

  33. PJ

    “If one hasn’t experienced any racism, I am not sure if one can truly understand what it is.”

    My wife has been rejected from med school because of her race. Several less qualified applicants were accepted over her simply because the school had met the “caucasian female quota” for that year.

    You’re [wrong]1. There are no quotas, at most they have a points system. And even where there is a points system where medicine or engineering are concerned those are mainly geared towards screwing over Asian kids, not Caucasian ones. Caucasians of all genders and backgrounds are welcomed with open arms to staunch the yellow (and brown) peril that overstuffs medical schools.

    Scapegoating some poorly understood idea of “Affirmative action” for your own failures is tacky and low-class. There is no shame in failing to get into medical school. It is probably the most competitive pre-professional program there is. (Actually I think Veternary school is but close enough.) Just man up and either try again or realize it wasn’t in the cards.

    1 Edited for content by the blog owner. Civility please.

  34. Gary P

    “In what year did the French Revolution begin?”

    Yikes. Am I suppose to know that? About 1800 +/- 7 years? I hope the next question in not, “What event marked the beginning of the French revolution?” Was it the attack on Bastille? I really don’t know. I guess I don’t care about French history.

    My interest is more in the Civil War era 1860-1865. And who decides what the start of that war was? I would would say that the start of the war was the passing of the “Fugitive Slave Law” (What political party was responsible for that monstrosity and what union teacher is going to discuss it without playing the game, “Name that Party!”?) It was the passing of that law that caused Harriet Beecher Stowe to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Lincoln was reported to call her the little woman who started the war because of the effect of that book.

    It was about seven years after the publishing of the book that John Brown led his infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, just before the presidential election year. Few people now understand what impact that raid had on the South because no one links it to the history of the slave revolt in Haiti where the slave holders and their entire families were massacred. This had to be on the minds of the older southern slaveholders because it had happened or was recent history when they were young. The slave revolt in Haiti was almost put down by the French but this effort collapsed when the French revolution intervened….. Oh, oops. Okay I guess I do have some interest when the French revolution started. Google…..

  35. Smoking Frog

    A related matter that I find interesting is the ignorance of older adults (not elderly) who do not know things which I think “anyone” would have picked up from newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media over the course of several decades. The example that comes to mind is having no idea of what nuclear fission is, but there are many others, from all fields. I just can’t think of them at the moment.

    As for the 18-year olds, I’m not persuaded that they know a whole lot less than 18-year olds fifty years ago knew. It may be true, but I certainly wouldn’t swear to it.

  36. I always find it interesting when physicists look at something out of their field. See “The Measure of Success” near the bottom of this page:

    They found SAT scores don’t relate very well to undergrad introductory class performance. And guess what: if you have a low SAT score you can still work hard you can get As in upper level classes. Well duh!

    I find their stab at the social sciences rather funny:

    “We found standard social science analysis could not answer our questions,” Schombert says. “In psychology, psychometrics, or other fields that would most want the answers we sought, there simply does not exist the ability to do the type of analysis we required,” he explains. “It’s a disconnect between the necessary levels of network, computer, and advanced mathematics skills needed to handle large datasets.”

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