The Successful Study of America's History and Institutions the Key to Informed and Responsible Citizenship
“Promote then as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”—President George Washington,
When ISI began its National Civic Literacy Initiative in 2003, its stated purpose was to hold colleges and universities accountable for how much their students learned about America's history and institutions as a result of their time on campus. Measuring the “civic literacy” of American students both before and after a college education was interesting in and of itself, especially since colleges themselves hold civic education to be one of their primary missions, and the fact that ISI's pathbreaking research unearthed a failure of American colleges to teach effectively America's history and institutions.
Still, there has always been something more to this effort to measure collegiate civic literacy beyond simply pointing out the civic illiteracy of college students and graduates. To be more specific, this effort is much more than a simple recitation of bygone factoids and statesmen. At its roots, there are certain bedrock assumptions about the value of a thorough understanding of America's history and institutions that undergird ISI's civic literacy project, and they can be ultimately traced back to George Washington's advocacy of something he referred to as “enlightened citizenship.”
It should be noted at the outset that Washington received very little formal education during his upbringing, and that his primary schooling came by virtue of self-education and his military training, which elevates practical wisdom over abstract logic. Consequently, Washington, more so than most Founding Fathers, had a great appreciation for the citizenship role played by ordinary Americans, whether it be on the battlefield or at the ballot box, and he knew that America's experiment in self-government hinged upon the capacity of the American citizenry to do their duty. But how could they do their duty if they did not know what was at stake?
Here we arrive at the crucial nexus between enlightenment and citizenship. Since republics empower the public with sovereignty, the only way for the public to exercise that power wisely is for them to understand the unique kind of self-governing society America has founded, and the issues, circumstances, and historical challenges that surrounded the establishment of such a regime. In other words, Washington believed that the only way for American self-government to succeed is for the sovereign—the public—to be as wise collectively as an enlightened monarch. Hence the need for the “general diffusion of knowledge” that Washington mentions in his farewell address.
So what does the entire body of ISI's civic literacy research say about the current status of such enlightened citizenship?
The answer to the first question is both simple and disheartening, “not very.” Let us review some of the major findings from ISI's previous reports:
- ISI has surveyed over 28,000 undergraduates from over 80 separate colleges, and the average score on our basic 60-question civic literacy exam was about a 54%, an “F.”
- At elite schools like Yale, Cornell, Princeton, Duke, Georgetown, and Johns Hopkins, their freshmen did better than their seniors on the same test, what ISI dubs “negative learning.”
- Among adults, those with a college degree also failed on average ISI's civic literacy test, scoring little higher than their peers with a high school diploma.
- College-educated adults were particularly ignorant of the Founding and Civil War eras, constitutional themes, and the essential features of a market economy.
The only conclusion one can draw from these findings is that a college degree falls short in “enlightening” its students in the fundamental aspects of American republicanism. And contrary to conventional wisdom, ISI's research reveals that especially at elite schools, there is a significant disconnect between formal higher education on the one hand, and greater civic learning on the other.
IISI next considered the civic impact of a college degree on public opinion, particularly opinion regarding American ideals, institutions, governance, and contemporary public policy. These are exactly the kinds of debates Washington would expect to be the topic of informed and responsible citizenship. And given the apparent disconnect between a college degree and civic learning, ISI examined whether these two forces have similar or diverging impact on American public opinion. The results revealed two very different worldviews:
- On the one hand, a college degree was found to have its primary impact on a narrow set of polarizing social issues, encouraging graduates to adopt a more liberal position on such controversies as abortion, same-sex marriage, and school prayer. Furthermore, college was also found to move graduates to the left in terms of their own political identity, making them more likely to identify with the Democrat and Liberal wings of the partisan/ideological spectrum.
- On the other hand, greater civic learning, did not have the same identifiably liberal impact on polarizing social issues as a college degree. Instead, acquiring more and more civic knowledge encouraged greater support for America's founding documents, the Judeo-Christian dictates of the Ten Commandments, and the workings of the free market.
Finally, we turn to the duty of citizenship itself. Just how engaged are Americans in their own political process, and does a college education live up to its billing as the incubators of civic leadership?
- Again, ISI's research discovered a divergence between the college degree and civic knowledge. When one considers the more active forms of civic engagement beyond voting—petitioning the government; reaching out to elected officials; working on campaigns; and influencing how others might vote—college was found to have zero influence on these duties of citizenship.
- Conversely, greater civic knowledge was discovered to be the leading factor in encouraging Americans to actively engage the political process. The more one reads, learns, and discusses American history and public affairs, the more one is likely to see both the relevance and efficacy of their own political engagement. This is exactly the promise of enlightened citizenship Washington enunciated in his famous farewell address.
College seems to produce a passive set of voters who are more inclined than non-graduates to identify with liberal social causes and political movements.
In many ways, this current civic literacy report brings us full circle to the original impetus of the project—holding colleges accountable for their failure to advance civic learning. Practically all American colleges purport to effectively teach American history and civics, even promising to encourage more advanced “critical-thinking” regarding many of the institutional features of American government. But the results belie the noble intentions. How can a student reason about the possible consequences of America's constitutional republic when they have little idea how that constitutional republic was designed and governed in the first place? Furthermore, it appears that due to college's stalling of civic learning, the academy loses its edge as the producer of informed and engaged citizens. Instead, college seems to produce a passive set of voters that are more inclined than non-college graduates to identify with liberal social causes and political movements. This politicization is certainly not consistent with the kind of independent, informed, and engaged citizenry that Washington hoped to encourage, one that could make direct connections between the lessons of the past, the debates of the present, their own interests, and those of the broader public.
The simple yet profound lesson to draw from all of ISI's civic literacy reports is if the American Academy truly wants to produce engaged and public-spirited citizens, the best thing for them to do is spend more time educating and less time indoctrinating. And a simple way to begin this process of renewal would be to prioritize the curriculum so that regardless of major, graduates would receive necessary and objective instruction in the fundamentals of American history and government. By improving their teaching of American history, government, and economics, colleges can better fulfill their civic responsibilities. The story of American republicanism should not be an excuse to either uncritically celebrate or cynically denigrate the American experience. Instead, the unvarnished story of our country is an opportunity to reflect, debate, and then act upon the promise of self-government. That is what the Founders did, and we would be wise to follow their example.