I just finished grading a hefty stack of final examinations for my introductory-level U.S. history survey course. The results were baleful.
On one section of the exam, for example, I supplied some identification terms of events and personages covered in class, asking students to supply a definition, date, and significance for each term. In response to “Scopes Monkey Trial,” one student supplied the following:
"The scopes monkey trial was a case in the supreme court that debated teaching evolution in the schools. It happened in 1925. Mr. Scope a teacher in a school wanted to teach about God and did not want to teach about evolution. The ACLU brought in lawyers to help with the case of Mr. Scopes. In the end Mr. Scopes side did not have the people's opinion. Evolution won. It is significant because now you have to teach evolution in school, you can't teach about God."
This answer might be considered a nearly perfect piece of evidence against intelligent design of the universe, since it gets just about everything (apart from the date) wrong: punctuation, spelling, grammar, and historical fact.
For those needing a refresher, Tennessee high school biology teacher John T. Scopes assigned a textbook informed by evolutionary theory, a subject prohibited by the state legislature. The court ruled against Scopes, who had, obviously, broken the law. But the defense won in the court of public opinion, especially after the ACLU’s lawyer, Clarence Darrow, tore apart William Jennings Bryan, the former Democratic presidential candidate, witness for the prosecution, and Biblical fundamentalist. The press dubbed it the "Scopes Monkey Trial" (inaccurately, since the theory of human evolution centered upon apes) and pilloried Bryan. As Will Rogers put it, "I see you can't say that man descended from the ape. At least that's the law in Tennessee. But do they have a law to keep a man from making a jackass of himself?"
An outside observer might ascribe my student’s mistakes to the political culture of this Midwestern city, where barely a day goes by without a letter to the editor in the local paper from some self-appointed foot soldier of the religious right.
That, however, wouldn’t explain another student who thought the 1898 war between the United States and Spain, fought heavily in Cuba, was about communism (not introduced into Cuba until after the 1959 revolution). Nor would it explain a third student who thought that the Scopes verdict condoned Jim Crow racial segregation.
A minority of students performed admirably, receiving grades in the range of A, while hewing, of course, to varied interpretations. Their success proved the exam was based upon reasonable expectations. However, the median exam grade was a C -- the lowest I’ve yet recorded, and fairly devastating for a generation of students who typically aspire to a B.
I was wondering what to make of this dispiriting but solitary data set when I read about the Education Department study  released late last week that shows that the average literacy of college-educated Americans declined precipitously between 1992 and 2003. Just 25 percent of college graduates scored high enough on the tests to be deemed “proficient” in literacy.
By this measure, literacy does not denote the mere ability to read and write, but comprehension, analysis, assessment, and reflection. While “proficiency” in such attributes ranks above “basic” or “intermediate,” it hardly denotes rocket science. It simply measures such tasks as comparing the viewpoints in two contrasting editorials.
The error-ridden response I received about the Scopes Monkey Trial speaks less to the ideological clash of science and faith than to a rather more elemental matter. As students in the 1960s used to say, the issue is not the issue. The issue is the declining ability to learn. The problem we face, in all but the most privileged institutions, is a pronounced and increasing deficiency of student readiness, knowledge, and capacity.
Neither right nor left has yet come to terms with the crisis of literacy and its impact on higher education. The higher education program of liberals revolves around access and diversity, laudable aims that do not speak to intellectual standards. Conservatives, for their part, are prone to wild fantasies about totalitarian leftist domination of the campuses. They cannot imagine a failure even more troubling than indoctrination -- the inability of students to assimilate information at all, whether delivered from a perspective of the left or the right.
It would be facile to blame the universities for the literacy crisis, since it pervades our entire culture at every level. The Education Department’s statistics found a 10-year decline in the ability to read and analyze prose in high school, college, and graduate students alike.
However, the crisis affects the university profoundly, and not only at open-enrollment institutions like the regional campus on which I teach. Under economic pressure from declining government funding and faced with market competition from low-bar institutions, many universities have increasingly felt compelled to take on students whose preparation, despite their possession of a high-school degree, is wholly inadequate. This shores up tuition revenue, but the core project of the higher learning is increasingly threatened by the ubiquitousness of semi-literacy.
How can human thought, sustained for generations through the culture of the book, be preserved in the epoch of television and the computer? How can a university system dedicated to the public trust and now badly eroded by market forces carry out its civic and intellectual mission without compromising its integrity?
These questions cry out for answer if we are to stem a tide of semi-literacy that imports nothing less than the erosion of the American mind.
Â Christopher Phelps is associate professor of history at Ohio State University at Mansfield.