George Washington, like Benjamin Franklin, was an ardent advocate of higher education. He believed so much in this cause that he left part of his estate to help create two colleges: a national university in Washington, D.C., and a smaller academy in Virginia.
The smaller academy became Washington College and then Washington & Lee. Congress never did establish the national university Washington envisioned, although it eventually chartered military academies at Annapolis and West Point.
In Washington’s mind, a national university would have served multiple civic purposes. It would have helped students from all regions of the country “in acquiring knowledge in the principles of Politics and good Government.” It would have alleviated any need for the nation’s best and brightest to finish their education overseas, where they might adopt “not only habits of dissipation and extravagance, but principles unfriendly to Republican Government and to the true and genuine liberties of mankind.” It would have nurtured national unity by producing graduates who could “free themselves in a proper degree from those local prejudices and habitual jealousies which… when carried to excess, are never failing sources of disquietude to the Public Mind, and pregnant of mischievous consequences to this Country.”
Even though Washington’s national university never came to be, its civic purposes remain worthy ones for American higher education. It is in that spirit that this report was produced.
Given the major findings of The Shaping of the American Mind: The Diverging Influences of the College Degree & Civic Learning on American Beliefs, it must be asked whether American higher education is achieving the civic aims Washington and Franklin set for it. Do our colleges and universities nurture a national consensus built around those enduring principles necessary to maintaining a free, prosperous, and self-governing nation?Colleges that can produce graduates without having a significant impact on whether those students believe America’s Founding documents remain relevant are not fulfilling the civic purpose that Washington and Franklin had in mind for higher education.
From the data presented here, it would be difficult to conclude that the contemporary American college experience in and of itself nurtures a common sense of national purpose. As has been shown, earning a bachelor’s degree independently influences a person’s views only on a narrow set of polarizing social issues—including same-sex marriage, abortion, school prayer, and the nature of the Bible—while making the average graduate less likely to embrace one of the most strongly held beliefs of the general American population—that anyone can succeed in this country with hard work and perseverance.
Furthermore, colleges that can produce graduates without having a significant impact on whether those students believe America’s Founding documents remain relevant are not fulfilling the civic purpose that Washington and Franklin had in mind for higher education.
Gaining civic knowledge, this report has shown, does increase a person’s belief in America’s Founding documents and ideals. Those who score higher on the ISI civic li teracy test are more likely to reject the notion that our Founding documents are obsolete and that America corrupts good people. They are also more likely to embrace free enterprise, agreeing that prosperity depends on free markets and entrepreneurs and disagreeing that global capitalism produces more losers than winners.
The problem, as ISI’s previous civic literacy reports have demonstrated, is that an American can earn a college degree without gaining adequate civic knowledge (and in some cases, even lose knowledge).
This must change if we want future generations of Americans to believe in the relevance of our nation’s Founding principles and to maintain a self-governing society where freedom and opportunity flourish. American colleges and universities need to do a better job of teaching young men and women about our nation’s history and institutions.
Next year, ISI will publish its fifth national civic literacy report, this time focusing on the potential linkages between college and civic knowledge on the extent of civic engagement among the American citizenry. Building upon previous findings that revealed a connection between greater civic learning and political participation among undergraduates, ISI will examine its random sample of American adults to determine first their overall level of civic engagement, and next, whether acquiring a college degree or gaining civic knowledge boosts the kind of informed and responsible citizenship so necessary for the proper functioning of America’s representative democracy.
For instance, does a college degree make you more likely to vote, serve in the military, run for elective office, conduct community service, or contact your elected representative; and how does that collegiate influence compare to the impact of higher civic knowledge on those dimensions of American citizenship? That is the kind of real-world civic impact that ISI will be analyzing in upcoming reports, and it all leads back to one fundamental question: Are America’s colleges and universities making the grade when it comes to their civic obligations? Until they are, the American public needs to demand concrete curricular reforms that will improve the capacity of colleges and universities to properly prepare their graduates for their duties as citizens.