A recent Gallup poll that showed university graduates have little knowledge of history is an indictment not only of higher education, but of the 12 grades that went before, Lynne V. Cheney believes.
Cheney, chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was in Salt Lake City Friday for the convention of the American Association of School Librarians.In a Deseret News interview, she said education across the board must accept the challenge to teach the humanities better. She has written a widely discussed publication titled "50 Hours" in which she calls for a required college curriculum in the humanities.
In the foreword to the booklet, she notes that a national survey funded by the endowment found that general education requirements are so loosely structured that it was possible to graduate from 78 percent of the nation's colleges and universities without ever taking a course in Western civilization; that 38 percent of graduates take no history at all; that 45 percent take no courses in American or English literature; 77 percent no foreign language; 41 percent no mathematics courses; and 33 percent without studying natural and physical sciences.
While a broad formal education should begin in kindergarten and continue through college, Cheney said, much of the information "is not presented well enough to encourage a student to return to the subject. They don't get the whole story in context." She cited cursory school treatment of such famous historical characters as Christopher Columbus and James Madison as examples.
"Students are told that Madison is the Father of our Constitution, but not about the years he spent preparing for that role," she said.
The shift to technology is putting more emphasis on science and mathematics. The practical importance of these subjects to jobs in a technological world are obvious, Cheney said, but a foundation in the humanities is still important. Twenty years ago, one in six college students pursued a major in the humanities. That figure has been reduced to one in 16.
While the possibilities for a job in the humanities may not be as great, she said, they can contribute to a greater understanding of most fields.
"There is a personal benefit in being able to place one's self historically," she said. From a purely pragmatic sense, historical and literary perspectives are useful in any job.
Students are demanding a quicker "in-and-out" time in higher education, she said. "However, students shouldn't be in charge of what they need to know. Those with more experience should be giving them guidance."
Libraries have a "wonderful role to play" in education, Cheney said. Books will always be important to the process, even though electronic media are demanding more people's time.
Studies have shown, in fact, that book sales have increased with the advent of television, rather than decreased as was once feared. People tend to stretch their time to absorb more as they are stimulated to learn.