“If you can read this, thank a teacher,” says the bumper sticker on the car in front of me. But literacy is more than the ability to read a bumper sticker. It also includes the accumulation of basic knowledge combined with a way of thinking that allows an individual to lead a life that is personally productive and contributes to America’s health and welfare.
For the second year in a row, America’s elite universities and colleges have failed to rise above a “D plus” on tests of basic knowledge about civics and American history, maintains a study commissioned by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s (ISI). In 2005, ISI contracted with the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy (UConnDPP) to administer tests of basic historical and civic knowledge to 14,000 students at 50 top schools, including Yale, Harvard, Cornell, the University of Virginia, Brown and Duke. The survey found that students “were no better off than when they arrived in terms of acquiring the knowledge necessary for informed engagement in a democratic republic and global economy.” Since an education at top colleges can cost as much as $40,000 a year, it would appear that those paying the bill are being cheated.
ISI’s final report entitled “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions,” presented four pivotal findings:
1. The average college senior knows very little about America’s history, government, international relations and market economy. Their average score on the civic literacy test was 53.2 percent. “No class of seniors scored higher than 69 percent, or D plus.”
2. Prestige doesn’t pay off. “An Ivy League education contributes nothing to a student’s civic learning. … There is no relationship between the cost of attending college and the mastery of America’s history, politics, and economy.”
3. Students don’t learn what colleges don’t teach. “Schools where students took or were required to take more courses related to America’s history and institutions,” says the ISI, “outperformed those schools where fewer courses were completed. The absence of required courses in American history, political science, philosophy and economics suggests a negative impact on students’ civic literacy.”
America’s most prestigious colleges had the worst scores. Many of the schools that typically rank the highest in popularity scored among the lowest in advancing civic knowledge. Generally, the ISI study found, the higher the ranking by U.S. News and World Report in its annual survey of institutions of higher education, the lower the rank in civic learning. “Even when controlling for numerous variables that influence learning, seniors at schools with reasonably strong core curricula — for example, Rhodes, Calvin and Wheaton — had double the gain in civic learning compared with those seniors at schools without a coherent core curriculum — for example, Brown, Cornell and Stanford.”
4. Greater civic learning goes hand-in-hand with more active citizenship. “Students who demonstrated greater learning of America’s history and its institutions were more engaged in citizenship activities such as voting, volunteer community service and political campaigns.” The study found that “86 percent of the students at the four highest-ranked colleges had exercised their right to vote at least once. At Colorado State, ranked second overall, 90 percent of seniors had voted at least once. … Higher civic learning and greater civic involvement are closely associated.”
Here are three of the test questions. Even partially informed people who believe American history is a better teacher than fascination and fixation on the latest news about Britney Spears and O.J. Simpson ought to be able to answer them correctly. The entire 60 multiple-choice questions can be found on ISI’s Web site, www.isi.org.
1. Which battle brought the American Revolution to an end: (a) Saratoga, (b) Gettysburg, (c) the Alamo, (d) Yorktown, (e) New Orleans?
2. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964) was significant because it: (a) ended the war in Korea, (b) Gave President Johnson the authority to expand the scope of the Vietnam War, (c) Was an attempt to take foreign policy power away from the president, (d) Allowed China to become a member of the United Nations, (e) Allowed for oil exploration in Southeast Asia.
3. Which of the following is the best measure of production or output of an economy (a) Gross Domestic Product, (b) Consumer Price Index, (c) Unemployment rate (d), Prime Rate (e) Exchange rate?
Everyone should take the test. No cheating and no, I’m not going to give you the answers. If you’re interested enough to read this column, you ought to be smart enough to know them. If not, then you paid too much college tuition, or didn’t take college seriously enough to get a real education.
In 1777, John Adams wrote to his son about the importance of education. He said it was necessary to teach the next generation about America’s founding principles in order to preserve the freedom and independence so many of his fellow countrymen sacrificed to achieve. Only when we know and embrace those principles can we pass on to a new generation that which we inherited from the past. The ISI study reveals severe cracks in that foundation; cracks that need immediate attention and repair.