In 1777, John Adams had reason to ponder how education could help the next generation preserve the freedom and independence so many were then sacrificing so much to achieve.
He wrote his own son with advice on his studies. They must include, Adams wrote, “the history of the causes which have produced the late revolution of our government. No study in which you can engage will be more worthy of you.”
If this Founding Father hoped to inspire his son to civic engagement-and he did-there is no doubt he succeeded. John Quincy Adams went on to become an ambassador, senator, secretary of state, president and, finally, as a member of the House of Representatives, a relentless witness against the evil of slavery.
Few Americans will ever match John Quincy's public career. But if we want to maintain our heritage of freedom, all our future leaders must be educated in the same general spirit.
In this task, American higher education is failing.
The son John Adams advised to study the American Revolution was only 10. Yet, had he mastered the subject, he would have known more about why Americans declared their independence than the typical college senior knows today.
Last year, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) published The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education's Failure to Teach America's History and Institutions. The report was based on the first-ever scientific survey aimed at measuring knowledge of America's history and institutions among college students. Conducted for ISI by researchers at the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy, the survey administered an examination to a sample of some 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges nationwide. The exam, developed by a panel of distinguished scholars, featured multiple-choice questions on 60 basic themes in four subject areas: America's history, government, relations with the world, and market economy.
The results were disappointing. The average senior score was a failing 53.2%; the average freshman score was 51.7%. After nearly four years of college, the gain in knowledge was trivial. Not one college could claim its seniors averaged even 70%.
When measured by the civic knowledge students had gained during college, the most prestigious schools were the worst performers. Some even subtracted from their students' knowledge, a phenomenon we called “negative learning.”
Less than half of college seniors knew that the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” comes from the Declaration of Independence.
The report drew a tremendous response in both the media and academia. While some faculty and college administrators predictably tried to rationalize the poor performance of their particular school or of higher education generally, a student at Johns Hopkins, which ranked dead last for improving civic knowledge, stated the obvious. “It's inexcusable that people don't know some of this stuff,” he said.
Last fall, ISI repeated the survey. Once again, the UConn research team tested a sample of about 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 25 randomly selected schools and an over-sample of 25 highly selective colleges. (Eighteen in this latter group had also been surveyed the previous year.) An analysis of the results is the subject of this report, Failing Our Students, Failing America: Holding Colleges Accountable for Teaching America's History and Institutions.
This second survey statistically corroborates and confirms the first. Once again, both freshmen and seniors scored just over 50%. Harvard seniors did best, but their average score was 69%, a disappointing D+. Once again, prestigious schools performed worst in adding civic knowledge, with several actually subtracting from students' knowledge. Once again, most seniors could not identify the aforementioned famous line from the Declaration.
Some good things in the two surveys were consistent, too. In the first survey, for example, Rhodes College was the best overall performer. In the second survey, it was the best overall performer among the 18 schools included both years.
This report is not designed to tear down American higher education, but to hold it accountable.
We hope it will become the basis for constructive engagement among faculty, administrators, donors, trustees, taxpayers, and legislators, leading to improved curricula. Our colleges can and must do better.
In 1802, John Quincy Adams, then a state senator, gave a speech honoring the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock. “Among the sentiments of most powerful operation upon the human heart, and most highly honorable to the human character, are those of veneration for our forefathers and of love for our posterity. They form the connecting links between the selfish and the social passions,” he said. “Respect for his ancestors excites in the breast of man, interest in their history, attachment to their characters, concern for their errors, involuntary pride in their virtues. Love for his posterity spurs him to exertion for their support, stimulates him to virtue for their example and fills him with the tenderest solicitude for their welfare.”
American colleges can help sustain the vital links between American generations-or help sever them. The choice is theirs.
|T. Kenneth Cribb, Jr.
Intercollegiate Studies Institute
|Lt. General Josiah Bunting, III
National Civic Literacy Board