When Thomas Jefferson was 75 years old, as Dumas Malone relates in The Sage of Monticello, he mounted a horse and joined his old friend James Madison in riding to a place called Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The two former presidents were not sightseeing. They were attending the meeting of a commission to finalize Jefferson’s plan for a public university in Virginia.
The college he envisioned would “form the statesmen, legislators, and judges on whom public prosperity and individual happiness so much depend.”
The curriculum would “expound the principles and structure of government; the laws which regulate the intercourse of nations, those formed municipally for our own government; and a sound spirit of legislation, which banishing all arbitrary and unnecessary restraint on individual action, shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another.”“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was and never will be.”—Thomas Jefferson
Almost two centuries later, few questions remain as vital to the prospects of American liberty as the one at the center of Jefferson’s later years: are we educating our children to pass on to their children the freedom that was passed on to us?
This report from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)—Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions—presents evidence, based on a scientifically conducted national survey, that American higher education is falling far short of Jefferson’s ideal.
To put it plainly: Americans fail the test of civic literacy—what they know about America’s history and institutions.
Many Americans with bachelor’s degrees cannot answer the most basic questions about our nation’s history and founding documents. Many cannot name all three branches of government or major guarantees of the Bill of Rights.
Our Fading Heritage is the third study of civic literacy published by ISI. All three corroborate the conclusion that American civic education needs to be improved significantly. The first two studies focused exclusively on college students; Our Fading Heritage expands the focus to include all Americans, college-educated or not. What are the real-world consequences of college graduates not having the knowledge required for informed citizenship? Read this report and you will begin to find out.
In 2006, ISI—in conjunction with the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy—conducted the first ever scientific survey of civic learning among American college students. Approximately 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 schools nationwide were given a 60-question multiple-choice exam on basic knowledge of America’s history and institutions. The results, published in The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions, rang an alarm. The average college freshman failed the civic literacy test with a score of 51.7%. The average senior failed with a score of 53.2%.
In 2007, ISI once again tested approximately 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges nationwide. The results of this second survey, Failing Our Students, Failing America: Holding Colleges Accountable for Teaching America’s History and Institutions, corroborated the results of the first. The average score among freshmen in this round of testing was 51.4%; the average among seniors, 54.2%. For each year of college study, students gained only about one percentage point on the civic literacy exam.
Students did poorly even at the most elite schools. Harvard seniors, who did best, earned an average score of only 69.56%, or a “D+.”
The media focused significant attention on these two ISI reports. Hundreds of news articles, commentaries, and editorials cited the test results. Yet the problem of civic illiteracy remains.
In 2008, ISI broadened the field of its study in order to more systematically isolate and gauge the independent impact of college on the civic knowledge of its graduates. In conjunction with Dr. Kenneth Dautrich of the University of Connecticut and with Braun Research, Inc., ISI administered a basic 33-question civic literacy test to a random sample of 2,508 American adults, ranging from those without high school diplomas to those with advanced degrees. Questions were drawn from past ISI surveys, as well as from nationally recognized exams such as the U.S. government’s citizenship test and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test. Respondents also were asked questions regarding their level of engagement in other activities that may or may not contribute to civic literacy.
The average score for all Americans who took this straightforward civic literacy test is 49%, or an “F.”
The survey discovered that civic literacy does improve the longer a person stays in school, but it improves too little and too inconsistently, especially in light of the tremendous resources devoted to American higher education. The average score for bachelor’s-degree recipients is 57%, and even Americans who hold advanced degrees only earn an average score of 65%.
The purpose of this survey and ISI’s American Civic Literacy Program is not to disparage American higher education, but to hold it accountable and to encourage leaders inside and outside of the academy to consider possible reforms.
When the commissioners met at Rockfish Gap in 1818, it turned out that the only real subject of contention was where the university should be located—not what its mission should be. They unanimously adopted Jefferson’s plan advocating an institution of higher learning that would develop civic leaders.
An overwhelming majority of those surveyed for this report agree with Jefferson, saying they believe higher education should prepare citizen leaders by teaching students about our nation’s history and institutions.
In light of this, the question that needs to be examined by faculty, administrators, trustees, donors, taxpayers, and elected officials is how this worthy goal is to be achieved for the students and parents who sacrifice so much for a proper college education.
|T. Kenneth Cribb Jr.
Intercollegiate Studies Institute
|Lt. General Josiah Bunting III
National Civic Literacy Board