After 47 years on the Camden County College faculty, English professor Cheryl Copeland wanted to know what students know about the world.
So she devised, administered, and analyzed a general knowledge test, one meant to be taken in a classroom with pen on paper.
No Google, iPhones, study guides, prep classes, or multiple choices. No grades, either.
Just 120 students and one erudite educator’s curated list of 100 questions about history, geography, culture, civics, and mathematics. Among them:
Who was Michelangelo?
What is the difference between a primary election and a general election?
In what country is the Thames River located?
So how much did the students know? Let’s look at the percentages. Fewer than half the questions were answered correctly by the students. What was the Titanic? 95 percent got that right. Who is Toni Morrison? Only four percent answered correctly. And no one aced the exam.
“They don’t know as much as they need to know,” Copeland says. “I don’t want to dis the students. They’re lovely people. But I do have disdain for the school systems they’ve come out of. Middle and high schools are denying students this core of knowledge.”
Here is the test (answer key at bottom of article):
Copeland’s was not a scientifically designed test, but rather, a semester-long sabbatical project to conclude her career. She retired from “the best job anyone could have” in the spring.
“About 10 years ago, I started noticing a decline in students’ general knowledge. It seemed to coincide with the arrival of these [digital] devices,” she says.
“Because of what I call smarty-pants phones, one of the arguments some of my colleagues very gently made against this test was that students can look up all this stuff, and that this knowledge is at their fingertips as never before,” Copeland adds.
“But I don’t think you should have to pick up a cellphone to find out how many countries there are in North America.”
I’m chatting with the avid reader and theatergoer in the pleasant Pitman home she shares with her husband, Ken Lockerby, a retired Philadelphia Daily News copy editor. The tests are stacked neatly on the dining room table.
“It was really stunning to me how little students know about our government — how many branches there are, how many senators there are, how Supreme Court justices are selected,” says Copeland.
“Not knowing this material [affects] your awareness as a student, as an American citizen, and as a citizen of the world,” she adds. “The more you know about government, the more inclined you are to vote.”
What does the word ‘ethics’ mean?
Who was Alexander Hamilton?
In what decade did U.S. women get the right to vote?
Some of the answers to the test questions were unintentionally “bordering on ridiculous,” Copeland says.
One student offered “Mona Lisa” as the name of a female artist. Another identified Moses as the father of Jesus.
And who knew that Alice Walker is not a novelist but rather the main character in ‘Alice in Wonderland?’
What was the Industrial Revolution?
On what continent is the Sahara Desert?
Who was Dante?
The test was not meant to measure intelligence or aptitude. But it may provide a useful snapshot in time of one group of students at Camden County College, where enrollment currently stands at 12,172.
“It’s an interesting topic, and it gives us a bit of a baseline about where our students are, and where the significant gaps in their knowledge may be,” college president Donald Borden tells me. “Our students reflect society at large.”
Dakota Blemings, 20, of Atco, just finished work on her associate’s degree in psychology at Camden County and plans to continue her studies at Stockton University. She calls Copeland a memorably tough “but really interesting” professor.
And the test, she adds, “made me realize I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.”
Blemings is right.
I took a copy of the test home and got … let’s just say I got a few, or maybe even more than a few, wrong.
Why so many questions about math, Professor?
“Some of the questions are a little more obscure than others, but most fall within the range of general knowledge,” Copeland insists.
“I put in the question about the isosceles triangle because even I knew what it was.”
I sure didn’t.
But I do now.