Hopkins seniors rank last in civics

Poll suggests students not taking core studies

September 27, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun Reporter

Students might learn how to be capable brain surgeons and rocket scientists at Johns Hopkins, but spending four years on the Homewood campus might also lead to a serious decline in their "civic literacy." A lot of them evidently no longer know whether the Revolutionary War ended at Yorktown or the Alamo.

Or so says a Delaware-based nonprofit that ranked the Baltimore school last out of 50 U.S. colleges in a survey of 14,000 students measuring how much they learned -- or, in the case of Hopkins undergrads, forgot -- about American history, economics, political philosophy and U.S. foreign relations during their bright college years.

The study was commissioned by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which advocates for a traditional curriculum on campus. It was designed and conducted by pollsters at the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy.

Half of the schools surveyed were randomly chosen to represent four-year institutions across the country, while the other 25 were selected for their elite status, based on measures such as U.S. News and World Report rankings, said pollster Christopher Barnes.

"Hopkins was the only college or university in Maryland that we looked at," said Josiah Bunting III, chairman of the institute's National Civic Literacy Board and a former superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute. "It is a very well-regarded university all over the country, certainly by me.

"But I think this shows," Bunting added, "that for whatever reason, students at Hopkins, perhaps more than students at other schools, do not enroll or are not obliged to enroll in some of the traditional core staples of civic literacy subjects."

Hopkins students took an average of 2.9 history and political science courses during their senior year, according to the report, while those at top-ranked Rhodes College, a private, liberal arts school in Memphis, Tenn., averaged 4.2 such courses in their final year.

Rhodes seniors averaged a 12 percent increase in civic literacy scores over their freshmen colleagues, while the scores of Hopkins seniors dipped 7.3 percent compared to first-year students.

At the bottom of the rankings with Hopkins were other elite colleges such as Brown, Cornell, Duke, Yale and Georgetown universities.

Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., and Calvin College, a Christian college in Grand Rapids, Mich., registered the second- and third-most-impressive gains, respectively.

The reason for the inversion of prestige and civic literacy ranking, said Bunting, was that elite institutions tend to give their students great latitude in choosing their course of study, and they permit excessive specialization.

"Nowadays, there appears to be a very high correlation between the prestige of a university and the reluctance of those institutions to provide a fixed or core curriculum," Bunting said.

Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea allowed that the rankings might be affected by the "disproportionate" number of Homewood undergraduates majoring in the natural sciences, but he dismissed the implication that Hopkins graduates are unprepared to participate in civic life.

"It seems to me that our students and graduates do pretty well in terms of civic engagement," O'Shea said. "We've got a nominee for [U.S.] senator from the state of Maryland, and we've got the mayor of New York City," he said, referring to Republicans Michael S. Steele and Michael Bloomberg.

"I think the way the data is represented is skewed," said Sarah Jane McCruden, a Hopkins sophomore, yesterday. She complained that overall scores on the civic literacy exam had no effect on the ratings; only the increase or decline did.

Hopkins freshmen scored an average 61.7 percent on the civic literacy test, well above the 50.6 percent average for Rhodes College first-year students. Even after their decline to 54.4 percent, Hopkins seniors still scored above the national average of 53.2 percent for college seniors.

The average freshman test score at Florida Memorial University, by comparison, was 24.4 percent, and improved to just 31.2 percent by senior year. But that 6.8 percent gain was enough to put the Miami Gardens college in ninth place in the rankings.

Some Hopkins students sniffed at the rankings yesterday.

"You come to college so that you can get a high-paying job," said Hopkins junior Tatiana Carthan, a writing seminars major, after reviewing a handful of civic literacy test questions. "These are not things you need to use in the real world."

But not all were defensive of their school's poor showing yesterday. "I don't see why we're trying to make excuses," said Marshall Honorof, 19, a classmate of Carthan and McCruden. "It's inexcusable that people don't know some of this stuff," the biology major said.

James Gilmore, a fourth-year philosophy graduate student at Hopkins who has taught undergraduates there, said he was surprised to learn that nearly half of Hopkins seniors couldn't answer most of the multiple-choice questions correctly.

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