Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Decline of America, Quizzed

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has issued its latest report on results of 7,000 students across the country taking its knowledge quiz, which covers American history, politics, and free-market economics. I took the quiz (registration is required to download it). It took me just under 15 minutes to finish the 60-question quiz, and I got a decent 58 answers correct. (That’s 96.7% right.) On average, college freshmen scored 50.4% and seniors got 54.2% right. Harvard was the highest at 69.6%. One interesting finding is that white students gained 5.1 points comparing freshmen to seniors, while non-whites gained only 0.8 points.

Needless to say, it’s disturbing to find that college students are so stupid. In my view, if you can’t manage to get half of these answers correct, you’re an idiot. I mean, sheer luck will get you 20%. However, these questions are mainly aimed at simple knowledge students should learn in high school. ISI likes to blame higher education for the problem of not teaching students what they should have learned in high school. I can’t see that as very plausible, especially since college students mostly take occupational majors (such as business) rather than history and political science courses. ISI is pushing for a core curriculum, and I do think it’s an interesting idea where the left and the right can unite against the corporatization of colleges.

In defense of all the dumb students out there, this quiz has more trick questions than almost any quiz I’ve ever seen: there’s a lot of oddball questions, obscure wordings, and topics (like the allocation of the federal budget) that are designed to provoke the wrong answer. This quiz partly tests how clever you are at multiple-choice tests.

Question #36 asks that just-war theory “requires the authority of a legitimate sovereign,” which is merely the narrowest part of just-war theory (you can’t have a war unless you have a state) and a pretty clear trick question (merely 19.3% got it right). And these is a clear right-wing agenda in some of the questions such as the free-market economics worship. For one question, Edmund Burke is the correct answer (hardly a mainstream thinker).

Now, about the two questions I missed. For the question about the Monroe Doctrine, ISI gives the answer, “Discouraged new colonies in the Western hemisphere.” No, this is wrong. The Monroe Doctrine discourage new European colonies in the Western hemisphere, in order to open the area to American colonies and US control.

My answer was, “Proclaimed America’s ‘Manifest Destiny’”– This isn’t precisely correct, I’ll admit. The term “Manifest Destiny” is a couple of decades later. But the concept of Manifest Destiny is deeply intertwined with the Monroe Doctrine, in the sense of the US declaring its authority to rule beyond its existing borders. In fact the Monroe Doctrine was the first step in Manifest Destiny. I’ll quote Wikipedia here: “The first use of the yet unnamed doctrine was in 1836 when Americans objected to Britain's alliance with Texas on the principle of the Monroe Doctrine. On December 2, 1845, U.S. President James Polk announced to Congress that the principle of the Monroe Doctrine should be strictly enforced and that the United States should aggressively expand into the West (see Manifest Destiny).”

This is one of those cases where more education can hurt someone in this quiz. (Not surprisingly, this question ranked third in “unlearning” where college seniors were more likely to get it wrong than freshmen, with only 22.2% correct.) If you have a simplistic view of history, then you keep these two concepts distinctly different. But when you have deeper understanding of history, the flaws of ISI's answer are revealed and the two concepts are intertwined, so it’s easier to get the answer wrong.

I also missed what is truly an obscure economic question: “What is a major effect of a purchase of bonds by the Federal Reserve?” The correct answer is, “An increase in the volume of commercial bank loans.”(23.8% got it right, or just above random chance.) My answer was “a decrease in the supply of money.” Technically, this is sort of correct. If the Fed Reserve buys bonds, then the supply of Federal Reserve money is reduced because it’s handing money to banks for the bonds. But that’s a little too simple to be right. Still, it’s difficult to believe that anyone could consider this information essential for being an educated citizen.

: Damn, I forgot one compelling issue. The key reason why students do so badly on this test is because they have no reason to try. Many students took the quiz because they were promised a chance to win an ipod. But because many of the questions are hard, students are likely to simply give up rather than offering their best effort. The evidence is clear in the test itself: the first quarter of the quiz, freshmen score 57% and seniors 59%. The numbers drop consistently as the quiz goes on, and in the last quarter of the quiz, freshmen get only 45% correct and seniors 51%. There seems to be clear evidence of students losing interest during the quiz (many students probably never made any effort), and so this quiz is a poor indicator of what students actually know.

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