THE COMING CRISIS IN CITIZENSHIP SPARKED NATIONAL DISCUSSION ON CIVIC LEARNING
When ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board released its report, The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions, in 2006, it sparked a national discussion on the role of colleges in teaching students about America.
The report, based on a survey which demonstrated that American colleges generally teach students little about their nation’s history and institutions, captured the attention of both the news media and the academic community.
The lively conversation about the findings began with a press conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., September 26, 2006. USA Today and Newsweek (online) published stories that same day, and hundreds of local and national media outlets reported the findings in the days and weeks that followed.
In the ensuing months, The Coming Crisis in Citizenship became the focus of presentations and symposia sponsored by numerous organizations concerned with public policy, scholarship, philanthropy, and American citizenship. For example, retired Lt. Gen. Josiah Bunting, III, president of the Henry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and chairman of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board, presented the report to the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents, and Dr. Gary Scott, an ISI senior research fellow, participated in an on-air forum sponsored by the Oklahoma State Regents For Higher Education.
The report was also the topic of lectures at schools such as the University of Texas, Georgetown University, and the University of Alaska.
Even some faculty and administrators who predictably chafed at the conclusion that their particular school was failing to increase student knowledge about America conceded that there were lessons to be learned from the survey results and problems to be dealt with in the way colleges approach civic learning.
“I do not doubt that Americans would be better off knowing more history than they do. And I do not doubt that Berkeley would be wise to consider requiring more history than it does,” Prof. David Hollinger, chairman of the history department at U.C. Berkeley, told the San Francisco Chronicle.“I don’t see why we’re trying to make excuses. It’s inexcusable that people don’t know some of this stuff.”—Marshall Honorof, Undergraduate, Johns Hopkins University
“There is a basic knowledge that students should learn, and I think that universities don’t think that way,” said Prof. Terry Moe, chairman of Stanford’s political science department. “My view is that they should.”
“Rather than biting the bullet and saying, ‘What do students need in an education generally?’” said Prof. Joel Carpenter of Calvin College, “(professors) go for the intellectual candy, rather than the vegetables.”
College students themselves made some of the most candid comments about the survey. After reviewing some of the exam questions, an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins (which ranked last among 50 schools for increasing students’ civic knowledge) expressed a sentiment that may be shared by too many college students and their parents. “You come to college so that you can get a high-paying job,” this student told the Baltimore Sun. “These are not things you need to use in the real world.”
Another Johns Hopkins student, however, refused to be seduced by that logic. “I don’t see why we’re trying to make excuses,” said 19-year-old Marshall Honorof. “It’s inexcusable that people don’t know some of this stuff.” Honorof, a biology major, was a walking rebuttal to faculty members who would excuse their school’s poor performance by arguing that many undergraduates major in the sciences and other subjects that have little to do with history, government, or economics.“Should we be concerned that our best-educated young Americans know so little about civics and history? We should, if we hope to sustain our representative democracy.”—Editorial, The Providence Journal
At Memphis-based Rhodes College, where the average student gained more civic knowledge than at any other school in the survey, a student gave witness to how excellent teaching can transform an undergraduate. When she was taking a course in U.S. history, the professor sent her into the field to do first-hand research on the civil rights movement. “I met a man who had witnessed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King,” said student Nora Fischer. “I never thought history could be interesting until I came here.”
Thanks to an ongoing public relations campaign by ISI that is aimed at keeping the issue of civic learning in the public mind, results from the civic literacy survey have been the subject of news reports on Election Day in November 2006 and, in 2007, on Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown, and Independence Day.
The spirit of the report was perhaps best captured in the popular press by an editorial in the Providence Journal, which asked and answered the central question behind ISI’s American Civic Literacy Program. “Should we be concerned that our best-educated young Americans know so little about civics and history?” asked the paper. “We should, if we hope to sustain our representative democracy.”