In the summer of 2012, my husband and his 12-year-old daughter went on a 2,200-mile bicycle trek from Selma, North Carolina, to Austin, Texas. They slept mostly in tents, usually in a manner known to long-distance hikers and cyclists as stealth camping. Thus, they had few showers and fewer opportunities for personal grooming. As a result, when he returned home, I heard him grumbling before the bathroom mirror, “I look just like Rutherford B. Hayes.”
I was not exactly bowled over by the resemblance, and my only reaction was to comment, “My students probably don’t even know who Rutherford B. Hayes was, much less what he looked like!” And I put my theory to the test that very day. Out of two freshman composition classes that morning, two students knew that Hayes was a President, and one said he was someone she had heard of in an American history class. The others, including not a few active-duty soldiers, had no idea.
Nor was I surprised. In fact, I was reminded of an experience I had as a college junior. I was taking an upper-division history class in the Civil War and Reconstruction, and one of my classmates asked if she could study with me for the final exam. In the course of that study session, I said, “There will surely be a question about the Hayes-Tilden election.” My study partner, herself a graduate student in history, asked, “Who won?” I was a nasty woman more than 30 years before Donald Trump made it fashionable, and I responded with a question of my own: “Have you ever heard of President Samuel J. Tilden?”
I decided last week that I would give my students an extra-credit opportunity while investigating their ability to answer what I would once have considered questions of common knowledge. Of course, I had to include my old bête noir, Rutherford Birchard Hayes. I asked questions in American history, the arts, literature, geography, the sciences, mathematics, and government. My intent was to compile the responses and write a shocking exposé of the knowledge base of American community-college students.
And there were indeed some doozies. Most knew who was President during the Civil War–except the two who answered George Washington. Not a single student knew why Veterans’ Day is celebrated on November 11, and only a few knew the number of United States Senators; most recognized “Starry Night” as a painting by Van Gogh and knew the process by which plants make their own food. They knew the square root of 144, and most were at least close to knowing what a, b, and c represent in the Pythagorean theorem. Only two knew the name of the Chief Justice of the United States; two others, in a startling attack on our constitutional form of government, overturned the separation of powers and named Barack Obama to that spot.
Humor and handwringing notwithstanding, that last question leads me to the only important lesson I took from this exercise. One student got 24 of 25 answers correct, and he was even able to identify the Chief Justice as John Glover Roberts, Jr. I was not surprised; both his knowledge and his writing have marked him as exceptional all semester. The space for the answer was small, so he was forced to write the first and middle names on the line provided and the rest below it. The former cheerleader sitting next to him wrote only one word for her response: Glover. Clearly, she had copied his answer, not realizing her gaffe.
And that brings me back to Rutherford B. Hayes. All but two of the more than 40 students who submitted this quiz indicated that Hayes was the 19th President of the United States. Despite my cautions–and with nothing to be gained–they had all looked up the answer on their smart phones, something I’m pretty sure my old pal R.B. won’t be doing with his iPad.
Regrettably, technology can impart information, but not integrity.