Publication Date

November 1, 1992

The last decade has witnessed a national debate over the teaching of history in American high schools and colleges. Public figures such as Lynne Cheney and Diane Ravitch1 have criticized the recent teaching of American history, arguing that a generation of Americans is growing up culturally illiterate. Their fear is that, as E. D. Hirsch argues in Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,2 Americans without a common culture will be unable to communicate effectively with each other. To some extent, the ire of these critics appears aimed at demands for an increased emphasis on the teaching of non-American history,3 especially world civilization, but proponents of these courses have long argued that Americans are growing up ignorant of other civilizations, and therefore will be unable to function in a world in which national borders have lost their meaning.4 World civilization in its turn is seen as a replacement for one of the standards of the twentienth-century American history curriculum, the Western civilization course, and a better way of teaching “something all educated persons should know.” Yet the proponents of the Western civilization course argue that Americans are unfamiliar with the great ideas of their own civilization, and that the course can be reconstructed to be an important—if not unique—part of the curriculum.5

Table 1Amidst the heated exchanges that have made up this debate, one common assumption of virtually all participants has been largely overlooked. All seem to agree that American students are ignorant of the particular subject matter of the course. Americans do not know American history; Americans do not know about the world; Americans do not know about the values and ideas that have made Western civilization significant.

There is, however, some evidence that this assumption of ignorance may not be valid. In June 1989, Professor Michael Frisch of SUNY Buffalo published the results of an informal survey he had been taking for some years in his introductory survey of American history course on the first day of class.6 He asked his students to write down, without undue reflection, the first ten names they thought of concerning the period covered by the course. He then repeated the request, but this time telling students to exclude figures in public life. The survey was anonymous. The answers to the first question showed a very limited number of names drawn almost exclusively from political and military figures involved in epochal events. Given the way American history is taught in grade schools and high schools, this is not surprising.7 But the answers to the second question were also limited, and seemed to reflect not so much what students had learned in school as their popular culture, with individuals such as Betsy Ross, Paul Revere, John Wilkes Booth, Pocahontas, and Daniel Boone appearing. Frisch argued, among other points, that these surveys are evidence of what students know, rather than what they do not know—the founding myths of our national culture.

Frisch's results from SUNY Buffalo have been corroborated by at least one other survey, taken by Wilbur Zelinsky at Penn State University. Both, however, offer somewhat limited perspectives on the preparation of American students. Both were taken at schools in the middle Atlantic states, and it seems possible that, for example, even though local figures did not receive mention, the emphasis on the Revolution and the Civil War was the result of that geographic location. Both also only considered American history, and those who teach the history of other parts of the world may justifiably wonder if there is a difference between students' familiarity with their subject matter and American history.

During the 1991–92 academic year, I surveyed students entering the American, Western, and world civilization classes taught by the Department of History of the University of Utah. The basic format of the Frisch questionnaire was employed, although a third question was added, asking students to list the ten events that they connected with the subject and period of the class. The survey was administered as the first order of business on the first day of class, preceding even passing out the syllabus. While the questionnaire is a relatively blunt instrument and concerns only a part of what we expect students to learn in history classes, the results provide us with some further material by which to judge the validity of Frisch's results and to extend our conclusions beyond the eastern United States and American history.

Table 2The University of Utah, located in Salt Lake City, is the principal campus of a multiple-campus state system of higher education in the state of Utah. An open-admission university, it had a total of 19,907 undergraduate students in 1990–91, the most recent year for which data is available. Certain high school classes are required for admission to the university, the most relevant for our purposes being one year of American history. Much of the student body is drawn from within the state: eighty-two percent of the 1990–91 entering class were residents of Utah. While the University of Utah is not affiliated in any way with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which is headquartered in Utah, a significant proportion of the student body is Mormon; in a sample analysis of undergraduates carried out in autumn 1987, fifty-seven percent of the respondents indicated that they were members of the LDS church.

The classes surveyed were History 170 (American Civilization), History 101 (Western Civilization to 1300), History 102 (Western Civilization since 1300), and History 105 (World Civilization). These classes are taught in several different formats, from smaller sections of 40–60 students to large lecture sections of 100 or 200 students. The large lectures in these latter sections are supplemented by weekly discussions taught by graduate teaching assistants. The Western civilization classes (History 101–102) are required of all history majors, and the world civilization class (History 105) can fulfill a history major requirement; a separate two-quarter sequence in American history, however, is required of history majors, and the American civilization course (History 170) should not include any students who have declared a history major. All of these courses can fulfill graduation requirements for non-history majors: American civilization meets a Utah State Legislature-mandated American institutions requirement for all graduates of the university, and Western civilization and world civilization fulfill liberal education distribution requirements in the humanities for undergraduates not majoring in the humanities or fine arts.

The rank-ordered results of the survey are presented in Tables 1 through 4. Responses were listed until a significant drop-off occurred in the number of students listing the name. Only Table 1, on the American civilization class, gives responses to Question 2, and this is largely illustrative: in all classes, responses to this question were very diverse and students had difficulty in responding at all.

The answers to Question 1 in the American civilization course seem to confirm Frisch's results at SUNY Buffalo. The figures named were largely canonical ones drawn from the founding events of the Republic, the Revolution, and the Civil War. Contemporary figures, such as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Martin Luther King, Jr., also appeared. Christopher Columbus was the only prerevolutionary person even to be named in the survey; except for this stock figure out of the traditional American narrative, colonial history does not exist in the memories of these students. With the exception of Lewis and Clark, all of the figures named were from east of the Mississippi River and earned their place in American history by actions carried out in the East. Those most frequently named were also male; Betsy Ross and Susan B. Anthony did appear on some responses, but only rarely. One final point should be made in the light of the religious and regional backgrounds of Utah students: while Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, appeared occasionally in the SUNY Buffalo lists, he was not mentioned by a single respondent in this survey. American history, in this survey, is largely male, white, eastern, and revolves around the Revolution and the Civil War.

Table 3The responses to Question 3 provide further support for this characterization. Wars, especially recent wars, entered the picture. The two world wars were most often mentioned, and Vietnam, the Great Depression, and the Korean War also found their way onto the list, but five of the first nine events had to do with the founding of the Republic or the Civil War. The discovery of America again was the only prerevolutionary event mentioned, and the industrial revolution lagged far behind the other events. It is not clear why the world wars, Vietnam, and the Korean War figured so prominently, especially since the individuals one might associate with these events—Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson—were only rarely mentioned, if at all, in the responses to the first question. One possibility, of course, is that these were the wars in which the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents of these students participated and that they therefore would have heard about informally. It is again striking how little of Western history is reflected in this listing (the settlement of Utah was never mentioned) and how little Mormon history appears.

One might suppose that the responses to the second question would fill in this gap: eliminating figures in public life could have opened the way for bringing into the picture those who settled the West, even the ancestors of these students. Utah is, after all, a state in which it is difficult to travel very far without bumping into a relic of Butch Cassidy, Brigham Young, or some other figure in the westward expansion of the United States. The victims of that expansion, American Indians, were most often named, but in very small numbers, and the confusion of memories of the respondents is apparent in the other names that appear on the list: Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln, among others, hardly qualify as not being in public life. Father Escalante does appear, as did "myself" and "my ancestors," but appearing on this list did not require many mentions: each of these names appeared only twice. When able to respond, then, Utah students showed the same ambivalence about the boundary between public and private life that Frisch's students in Buffalo also exhibited; but most often, in fact, Utah students were unable even to respond to this question.

The survey results from the two-quarter Western civilization course, which breaks at 1300 A.D., are given in Tables 2 and 3. The responses to Question 1 in these classes seem to reflect the same version of the past found in the American civilization course, one overwhelmingly peopled by white males in which the significant events were primarily those concerning states. The results from the ancient and medieval section of Western civilization suggest that this period is remembered both for great political events and for intellectual achievement: at least half of the ten most frequent names are those of intellectual figures. But in responding to Question 3, these students returned to an emphasis on political events, with the Roman Empire drawing considerably more notice than the birth of Jesus Christ. Cleopatra was the only woman to receive notice. The rooting of students' version of "Western civilization to 1300" in the ancient period is suggested by the appearance of only one figure (Napoleon) and only one event (the Crusades) from outside this period. The responses from the second part of the course (covering history since 1300) show much more emphasis on political events, with only Martin Luther and Leonardo da Vinci, and the Reformation and the Renaissance, breaking the list of European and American discoverers, rulers, and events. American history has a significant, but not overpowering, place in Western civilization, but it is worth noting that the most frequently mentioned figure in Western civilization since 1300 was the discoverer of America.

The results from the world civilization class (Table 4) are similar. Indeed, there is striking overlap between the results from the Western civilization class and those in the world civilization class: Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Napoleon, Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Henry VIII are the stuff of not only Western civilization but also world civilization. The world wars, the French Revolution, Vietnam, and the American Civil War hold similar positions of preeminence. No women appear on the list; Gandhi is the only nonwesterner to be mentioned. Wars were seven of the eleven most frequently mentioned events. No events occurred in Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa, and only the Vietnam War occurred in Asia.

Table 4In both the Western civilization classes and in world civilization, the confusion about who or what was an appropriate answer to the second question persisted and was in fact even stronger than in the American civilization class. It is impossible to present any ranked listing of responses to this question: no figures were mentioned more than four times, and most figures were named only once. Those who were listed tended to be similar to the responses to the first question. Thus, in answering this question, students either left it blank or did not recognize the distinction between public and nonpublic. As in the American civilization class, students in Western and world civilization seem unable to connect the notion of “history” with anyone outside of public life.

The results of this survey suggest that students in Utah are no more tabula rasa than those in Buffalo or State College. Both in American history and in Western and world civilization, they have a version of the subject already in mind before they enter the classroom. The origins of these versions of the past may lie, as Frisch hypothesizes, in popular culture rather than in formal instruction in history. But whatever its basis this version of the past has particular characteristics that it is important for the historical profession to notice. It is a past that is limited to certain places: world civilization largely took place in Europe and North America; Western civilization occurred in ancient Greece and Rome and, later, in the United States and its West European allies; American history took place in the East. It is also a past with limited scope. Marked by great events like wars and revolutions, and peopled by the males who participated in such events, it rarely includes individuals like these students or events that occur to them. “History” is distant, it is something that happens out there to other people. This is of course most striking in the American history results: it is difficult to believe that virtually all of these students were unaware of many events in the history of the settlement of Utah or in the history of Mormonism, but such events were not considered appropriate responses when asked about “history.” The same distancing from the past marks the results from the other classes as well.

Extending the basis of speculation about the historical memories of students to the western United States thus underscores Michael Frisch's reading of his students. The "subsurface reefs of cultural memory" in American students are, indeed, massive, and even outside of American history seem to consist largely of the Eurocentric pantheon enshrined by critics such as E. D. Hirsch. Such conclusions give pause to those who have sought to broaden the historical vision of their students. Yet my reading of these data also suggests a more troubling conclusion, for if our students do not include people such as themselves—in social, religious, or even regional background—in the story of the past, it is not surprising that the study of the past seems irrelevant to them.


1. Lynne V. Cheney, American Memory (Washington, 1987); Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr., What Do Our Seventeen-Year-Olds Know? (New York: Harper and Row, 1987); Diane Ravitch, “Decline and Fall of Teaching History,” New York Times Magazine, November 17, 1985, 50–57.

2. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

3. See, however, the exchange between Michael Frisch on the one hand and Diane Ravitch and Stephen Thernstrom on the other in The Journal of American History 76 (1989), 672–674.

4. William H. McNeill, “Beyond Western Civilization: Rebuilding the Survey,” The History Teacher 10 (1977), 509–548.

5. See Carolyn J. Mooney, “Sweeping Curricular Change Is Under Way at Stanford as University Phases Out Its ‘Western Culture’ Program,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 14, 1988, A1, A11–A13; and William J. Bennett, “Why the West?,” National Review, May 27, 1988, 37–39.

6. Michael Frisch, “American History and the Structures of Collective Memory: A Modest Exercise in Empirical Iconography,” Journal of American History 75 (1989), 1130–1155.

7. Some indication of this can be gained from Frances FitzGerald, America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.