This report begins an inquiry into a question crucial to the future well-being of the American republic: Do our colleges and universities improve undergraduate knowledge of America's history and institutions? Through this study, ISI has established for the very first time a baseline for examining civic knowledge and civic learning at America's colleges and universities. We will continue to assess higher education's performance on an annual basis. While the results are not encouraging, ISI offers this report with the hope that it will stimulate corrective action among those immediately responsible for higher education—trustees, donors, alumni, parents, public officials, administrators, faculty, and students. Furthermore, ISI offers the following specific recommendations for the improvement of undergraduate education in America's history and institutions.
RECOMMENDATION 1: Colleges and universities should begin to assess their effectiveness in the teaching of America's history and institutions.
The first step in improving such learning at our nation's colleges and universities is assessment. America's colleges and universities should begin to assess their effectiveness in teaching our history and institutions as discussed in this report and determine where they are strong and where they need improvement.3
RECOMMENDATION 2: Improve the number and quality of required courses in history, political science, and economics.
As this study demonstrates, students who take more courses in American history, political science, and economics learn more in these areas. They also vote more and participate more in other citizenship activities. Colleges and universities would do well to review their current general education requirements in this light and add additional required courses in areas that are weak. For most schools, adopting more rigorous requirements, perhaps those embodied in a core curriculum, would be one step in the right direction. Furthermore, since students from nontraditional households enter the university at a disadvantage when it comes to civic knowledge, improving the number and quality of required courses is even more important.
RECOMMENDATION 3: Stewards of higher education should hold colleges and universities accountable.
An independent board of overseers, trustees, or regents governs most American colleges and universities. These stewards of higher education should determine what their institutions are actually teaching and their students are actually learning in these key areas. At public schools, state elected officials also share in the responsibility of ensuring that schools supported by taxpayer dollars fulfill their public mission. Such officials should play a key role in improving civic literacy in higher education. By directing their gifts of money and time to areas on campus where education in America's history and institutions is strong, alumni and donors also have an important role to play in improving the teaching of American history and institutions in higher education.
RECOMMENDATION 4: Inform parents, students, and others who have a stake in higher education of a particular college's relative performance in teaching America's history and institutions.
When visiting and selecting schools, future undergraduates and their parents should consider this report's findings, keeping in mind the negative relationship between prestige and civic learning. U.S. News rankings offer some guidance, but they, and others like them, do not measure the most important aspects of undergraduate education: what students actually learn and what they are taught. As those greatly affected by the quality of education, parents and their children should actively influence what schools offer in terms of courses aimed at transmitting a deeper knowledge of our country's heritage.
RECOMMENDATION 5: Build centers of academic excellence on college and university campuses for the teaching of America's history and institutions.
In the 1980s and '90s, nearly every American college and university built academic and teaching centers, financed faculty education, and sanctioned student groups in the areas of multicultural studies, women's studies, and gay and lesbian studies. Knowing that our universities and colleges are failing to teach America's history and institutions, higher education should undertake new efforts in support of scholarship, faculty education and training, and student organizations. Built around centers of excellence, these new efforts would act as resource catalysts on campus for improving the teaching of American history, political science, and economics.
3 A 2005 report by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) found that "the most important outcomes of college study—outcomes widely regarded as key to economic opportunity and democratic citizenship—have been insufficiently addressed in reliable, cumulative assessments of students' gains from their college studies. For all the value society places on the kinds of learning addressed in this report, we still lack persuasive evidence about how well today's students are actually doing." Significantly, AAC&U's report calls higher education's assessment of outcomes in liberal education "spotty" and notes that its authors found "no national data" on assessment of "civic responsibility and engagement."
The report recommends employing "multiple measures, over time" with a focus on assessment to "improve learning." While it does not support standardized testing as the "best way to assess students' learning gains and level of accomplishment over their several years in college," the AAC&U report allows that "standardized tests can supplement curriculum-embedded assessments when they are used with appropriate professional standards and cautions." ISI is sensitive to the need for broader and even more comprehensive measures of learning on our college campuses if higher education is to be held accountable for results that match the tuition and other costs associated with a university education. But until American higher education undertakes its own assessments of whether the learning justifies the costs, ISI's research fills a startling gap.