Are Students dumber than they were 90 years ago? I sure hope not.

We’ve all heard that today’s students don’t know history, and can’t find anything on a map.   Is it reassuring or not to know that their ancestors weren’t much brighter?

American students back in the time of Gandhi and Mussolini didn’t even know who those two famous people were.

Benito Mussolini giving an evil star and holding a handkerchif
Would you ask this guy for a foot massage?

“Gandhi is an Italian Ambassador in Washington” said students at Syracuse university, back when “British Rule in India” was “confronted with its gravest crisis.”

“Freudism is a revolutionary party in Bavaria,” they added.  Well, at least Bavaria is geographically closer to Freud’s birthplace than Italy is to India.   “Mussolini is an alcohol rub” which was apparently used in massage.  Or, Mussolini might have been the forerunner to Ganghnam style.

Now mind you, these names were taken from the headlines of the day.  These characters had full front page spreads in the newspapers.  Students just had no idea about current affairs.

This was reported in the Evening World on December 14, 1922.  Yup, about 90 years ago.  (On that same day, Syracuse University called the World’s arch competitor, the Evening Public Ledger, “The Best All Around Newspaper in America.”  Hey, don’t shoot the messenger baby!)

Were the Evening World making this up out of sour grapes?  No, apparently they got their news straight from the horse’s mouth, one of the hapless instructors at Syracuse “University.”

To see how well his students followed the news, Professor Finley G. Crawford gave them a questionnaire, asking some obvious and less obvious questions.  I bet he was pretty disappointed with these kinds of answers.  A moratorium, he found, was a death notice in Germany.

Others we might understand.  Gifford Pinchot, who they thought was a Frenchman and an interpreter, has largely been forgotten.  So he didn’t become governor of Pennsylvania, so what.  But Pinchot was pretty much a household name in 1922.

The ignorance of professor Crawford’s students seems even more shocking considering that University was not always easy to get into.

In Scotland in 1879, only one in 800 people attended University in 1879.  Of course, others might attend later or have graduated, but Scotland had pretty much the highest.  Other well educated countries included Germany, where one in 1,600 people were students, and England, where the number was one in 4,500.

In 1900, less than ten percent of Americans had a high school diploma.  In 1910, less than three percent had a post secondary education (university or related.)  Even as late as 1960, less than ten percent of men and less than six percent of women in America had a college degree (and only about 40 percent of the adult population had completed four years of high school).  So, way back in 1922, college was a rare opportunity.  To think it was squandered on people who didn’t read a newspaper boggles the mind.

* Syracuse University is now said to be the 58th best college in America, according to US News and World Report, putting it ahead of Purdue, Texas A & M, Brigham Young, Rutgers, Virginia Tech, University of Colorado – Boulder, pretty much every University with a state’s name in it, and a lot of places I never heard of.


I haven’t found the statistics for 1922. For other years, see American Labor in the 20th Century, by the department of Labor Statistics at  This gives some numbers for 1900 and 1910, but its sources appear to be incorrectly cited (so, many the numbers are wrong.)

Statistical Abstract of the United States for 2000, by the United States Census Bureau, contains education statistics from 1960 to 2000.

International statistics from 1879 taken from The Daily Globe, St Paul Minnesota, 26 October 1879