'Times' American History Survey A Farce

Students' Slapstick, Paper's Ignorance Mar Senate-Shaking Educational Drive

What would you say if someone asked you who was President of the United States during the Civil War?

Professor Frederick Merk, chairman of the Department of History specializing in the United States, thinks he would answer "Theodore Roosevelt" if confronted with that question on an examination.

One hundred and fifty college freshmen wrote "Jefferson Davis" on the recent survey made by the New York Times, and there were enough similar replies to cause headlines that 25 per cent of college freshmen did not know the correct answer.

And now Senator Joseph P. Guffey (D., Pa.) has introduced a resolution calling for a Congressional study of ways and means to promote more adequate instruction of American history on the basis of the Times' questionnaire, according to the United Press.

It's pretty funny, because it's one of the biggest hoaxes in American history.


This conclusion should be obvious from ordinary common sense, and it is also backed by a trio of experts on the three aspects of the case--historical, psychological, and educational.


Exactly where the guilt belongs is a bit dubious. It might be blamed on the students who took the test and answered it facetiously, but it seems logical to accuse the Times itself for distributing such a poll and taking the results seriously.

The procedure in most cases was this: A freshman class, preferably in American history although any other subject was all right, would walk into the regular classroom at the regular time and instead of the regular lecture would be presented with the examination, told it did not count in their mark, and instructed not to sign their names.

Under these circumstances, and with a set of questions and expected answers that Professor Merk termed "sophomoric poppycock," the only possible outcome was that each student exercised his sense of humor to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the sense of humor.

But the Times, for some reason, failed to recognize this. Benjamin Fine, the educational editor, who conducted the poll and wrote it up, stated that only about two per cent of the answers received were facetious, and "we quoted no facetious answers. They were all thrown out immediately."

Now it's pretty apparent that many of the wrong answers filling over five columns of Sunday's Times were, as he said, the honest attempts of people who "just didn't know." It seems equally apparent that 1500 out of 7000 students would not call Casey Jones a prominent figure in the history of America's railroads if they expected to be graded on their papers.

According to Professor Henry W. Holmes '03, of the Graduate School of Education, there was "poor motivation for serious taking of a test. In fact, no one would take it seriously unless he took everything seriously."

Just how many people answered in good faith is difficult to determine. Probably the best "index" question would be that on the Civil War President. The Times says that 25 per cent of American college freshmen do not honestly know the answer to this question. A consensus of American history teachers at Harvard and other colleges revealed 2 as the more likely figure.

This leaves a facetious fringe of about 23 per cent, which is of course only an approximation at best since the temptation to play around varied with the questions. However, this estimate from the negative point of view ties in with the positive example of the aforementioned Casey Jones, where 21.4 per cent couldn't resist.