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September 19, 2007

Give Everyone A "D"

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute released its second annual survey of civic awareness among American college students, and the results are just as depressing as last year's. "The average college senior know astoundingly little about America's history, government, international relations and market economy," according to the ISI report, "Failing Our Students, Failing America."

Harvard seniors scored a "D+" average on a 60-question multiple choice exam. That was the highest school score among seniors at 50 colleges surveyed - 25 elite universities and 25 other randomly selected schools. Some 14,000 freshmen and seniors took the test.

Among the questions were these:

The line "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.." is from

A. the Federalist
B. the preamble to the Constitution
C. the Communist Manifesto
D. the Declaration of Independence
E. an inscription on the Statue of Liberty

The dominant theme of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was:

A. treatment of Native Americans,
B. westward expansion
C. whether Illinois should become a state
D. Prohibition
E. slavery and its expansion

The Constitution of the United States established what form of government:

A. direct democracy
B. populism
C. indirect democracy
D. oligarchy
E. aristocracy

The survey, conducted by the University of Connecticut's department of public policy, generally found that the higher a college was listed in US. News & World Report rankings, the lower it ranked in civic learning. At the eight worst-performing colleges-including Cornell, Yale, Duke, Berkeley and Princeton, the average senior did worse than the average freshmen, an example of what the report calls "negative learning." The worst-performing college, Cornell, the report said, "works like a giant amnesia machine, where students forget what they once knew." Only 28 percent of Cornell seniors knew or guessed that the Monroe Doctrine discouraged new colonies in the Western Hemisphere.

The ten colleges where civic knowledge increased from freshman to senior year were mostly lesser-known institutions: Eastern Connecticut State, Marian College, Murray State, Concordia, St. Cloud State, Mississippi State, Pfeiffer, Illinois State, Iowa State and the University of Mississippi.

Surveyed colleges ranked by Barron's imparted only about one-third the civic learning of colleges overlooked by Barron's.

One reason why civic knowledge lags is the trend away from teaching dates and factors in general, in favor of analysis, trends and a student's personalized take on the past. And with the rise of postmodern theory and cultural relativism, many students have been taught to scorn the traditional values of the west - equality, freedom, democracy, human rights - as masks for the self-interest of the rich and powerful. If follows from this view that history, particularly American history, is mostly propaganda inflicted on the young.

ISI asks: "Is American higher education doing its duty to prepare the next generation to maintain our legacy of liberty?" The answer in the report is no. In 1896, at Princeton's 150th anniversary, Woodrow Wilson argued that a central purpose of higher education is to develop citizens capable of steering the nation into the future because they have a steady grip on the past. "The college should serve the state as its organ of recollection, its seat of vital memory," he said. But in the survey, Princeton ranked as the fifth-worst school for civic learning. And most of the other 49 schools weren't much better.

Comments (1)

Robert Weissberg:

I have a somewhat different take on these data. From an evolutionary biology perspective, it all makes perfect sense. That is, students are repeatedly exposed to left-wing political ideology as they pass through their pre-college civics courses. Everything from denouncing the Constitution as a white male plot to criticizing capitalism for producing horrible economic inequality. Smart students are also more likely to attend "progressive" schools with younger and more left-leaning teachers.

Like animals living in a poisonous environment, many learn to filter out this claptrap. The smarter ones in particular know that it is crap though they may be unable to discern the truth. After a point, thanks to evolutionary adaptation, they reject everything they hear but nevertheless repeat it back on the exam. This adaptation perserves sanity while gaining admission to elite schools. In other words, cyncism about their lessons is functional. Thus, if their left wing teacher said that there were 50 states, they would not believe it given all the past nonsense.

The bad news is that requiring more civics education would only adding more poison. I suspect that today's ideologues would love to teach their views 24/7 and are probably tryting to get Foundation support for their mission. Conservatives may fall for this ruse.

We might be better off with zero civics given (a) the mis-information conveyed and (b) the engendering of cynicism toward learning. What must be changed is what is taught, not just requiring more the same.

Bob Weissberg

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