A Proposal Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania
In 1749, Benjamin Franklin was worried. Surveying the landscape of Penn’s Woods, he looked in vain for what he termed an “academy” where the rising generation of Pennsylvanians “might receive the accomplishments of a regular education.”
Franklin was particularly concerned that there was “a want of persons so qualified” for “public offices of trust” as well as “schoolmasters… to teach children reading, writing, arithmetic, and the first principles of virtue and piety.” So he wrote a pamphlet entitled A Proposal Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, laying out his arguments for a project that would later become the University of Pennsylvania.
Franklin’s curriculum was designed to teach the principles and institutions that had produced Great Britain’s flourishing society. He believed the students should grapple with history to learn “how men and their properties are protected by joining in societies and establishing government; their industry encouraged and rewarded, arts invented, and life made more comfortable: the advantages of liberty, mischiefs of licentiousness, benefits arising from good laws and a due execution of justice.” He also understood that as a result of a liberal education, “questions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, will naturally arise, and may be put to youth, which they may debate in conversation and in writing.”
In short, Franklin—along with leading Founders like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington—emphatically believed that America needed colleges that would nurture civic leaders by teaching them their country’s history and institutions, and then by encouraging them to think critically and participate effectively in public affairs.
Since 2006, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) has been engaged in a multi-year project designed to assess how well America’s colleges and universities are doing in preparing their graduates for the kind of informed and responsible citizenship Franklin had in mind. This year’s installment, The Shaping of the American Mind: The Diverging Influences of the College Degree & Civic Learning on American Beliefs, seeks to measure for the first time the impact that earning a bachelor’s degree and acquiring additional knowledge of America’s history and institutions exerts on public opinion.
As ISI’s previous research has demonstrated, graduating from college and gaining civic knowledge do not necessarily go hand in hand (see ISI’s 2007 and 2008 reports). Whether the focus was on current undergraduates (2007), or adult college graduates at various stages of their careers (2008), ISI’s civic literacy research has proven that college graduates are largely ignorant of America’s core history and enduring political and economic institutions.
But certainly the college experience is not devoid of any civic influence? This pointed to a logical follow-up question: If earning a bachelor’s degree does not have a significant impact on civic knowledge, what does it impact relevant to the civic life of our nation? If college students do not absorb knowledge of American history, government, foreign affairs, and market economics, what do they absorb?
That is the focus of the current study, The Shaping of the American Mind. How does the college experience influence a graduate’s attitudes towards the institutions of America’s free society? How does earning a college degree affect a person’s views on perennial and current issues of governance and education? Do graduating from college, on the one hand, and gaining civic knowledge, on the other, have similar or differing impacts on a person’s views?
In addition to thirty-three civic knowledge questions, survey respondents were asked to answer forty-one demographic questions (about their educational attainment, place of residence, age, ethnicity, income, religious affiliation, political orientation, etc.) and whether they strongly agreed, somewhat agreed, were neutral, somewhat disagreed, or strongly disagreed with each of thirty-nine propositions (see page two for a complete listing). These propositions presented points of view on topics ranging across six broad themes: American ideals and institutions, higher education, immigration and diversity, culture and society, religion and faith, and market economy and public policy.
Using multivariate regression analyses, ISI was able to determine which demographic characteristics—including whether someone had earned a bachelor’s degree—had an independent, statistically significant impact on a person’s views on a particular proposition.
If two people otherwise share the same basic characteristics—i.e. they are the same age, religion, ethnicity, live in the same part of the country, earn the same income, etc.—does the one with a college degree have a different opinion about a particular proposition than the one who does not? And what about those who demonstrate gains in civic knowledge, as measured by ISI’s civic literacy exam? What is the independent impact of greater civic knowledge on how an individual approaches those thirty-nine propositions, and how does that impact compare to that of a college degree? Do these two distinct variables move in tandem or at cross-purposes, producing two very different “American minds”?
Neither the survey nor this report presumes “right” or “wrong” answers to the thirty-nine opinion propositions presented to the respondents. However, given the civic purpose of higher education, ISI thought it beneficial to share with the American people, who fund and attend our nation’s colleges, the intriguing findings of this report.
Benjamin Franklin knew instinctively that there was a direct connection between higher education and the relative support among America’s leaders for the precious political, economic, and cultural institutions of a free society, and that is why he took such care in crafting a curriculum that would instill a respect for those principles in the hearts and minds of his graduates. How does the current college experience measure up to Franklin’s standards? Explore the pages of this report for the answer.
|T. Kenneth Cribb Jr.
Intercollegiate Studies Institute
|Lt. General Josiah Bunting III
National Civic Literacy Board