Neglecting core subjects fails students

Christina Coleburn, Opinion Editor

According to a survey released on Oct. 15 by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, few universities require students to take classes in all seven core subjects that are deemed critical to a liberal arts education, including economics, foreign languages and U.S. history. The sixth annual edition of the survey found that 18 percent of American colleges mandate at least one course in U.S. history or government, 13 percent necessitate a foreign language and 3 percent require students to take economics — startlingly low figures. Of the 1,098 universities the ACTA surveyed, only 23 received  an A grade, reserved for schools that compel students to take classes in six of the seven areas.

NYU, which does not require U.S. history or economics courses, was among the 389 schools that earned a B. Although a B demonstrates a far more respectable effort than the 63 percent of colleges that were given an assessment of C, D or F, the fact that NYU does not necessitate that its students take courses in these areas is still disconcerting. A proficient knowledge of U.S. government, history and economics is essential for engaging with the broader financial and political landscape. Studying government enlightens individuals on the duties and rights of citizenship, understanding history enables citizens to analytically consider the nation’s past and comprehending economics fosters quantitative reasoning.

Despite the importance of historical, civic and economic proficiency, these skills are declining among American youth. In a 2012 collaboration with the ACTA, GfK Roper surveyed 300 college graduates from both private and public institutions to assess their knowledge of U.S. history — with alarming results. While 96.2 percent of the respondents knew that Lady Gaga was a musical performer, only 38.4 percent knew the correct term limits for members of Congress. While the troubling survey does not directly reflect a causation with minimized requirements in core subjects, a correlation is plausible. Many students work toward their bachelor’s degree for at least four years. The reality that a student could study for four years in an institution of higher learning and never step foot in a core subject class — and the ACTA study found that many do not — is extremely unnerving.

While several shortcomings contribute to this lack of proficiency beyond the scope of post-secondary education, universities cannot be fully exempt from culpability. The troubling results from the survey that measured college graduates’ historical knowledge demonstrate that all institutions — whether public or private, A or F rated — have a responsibility to provide students with an education that sufficiently prepares them for post-collegiate life. By disregarding the significance of these classes, colleges deny students a pivotal education.

A version of this article appeared in the Oct. 16 print edition. Email Christina Coleburn at [email protected].