Are You Smarter Than a College Senior?

Pop quiz:

1)      The line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” is from:

A.     The Federalist
B.     The Preamble to the Constitution
C.     The Communist Manifesto
D.     The Declaration of Independence
E.      An inscription on the Statue of Liberty

2)      Over the past 40 years, real income among American households has:

A.     Remained the same when averaged over all households
B.     Involved the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer
C.     Involved the poor getting richer and the rich getting poorer
D.     Decreased for the middle class and increased for the upper class
E.      Increased for the lower and middle classes and increased most for the upper class

Okay, class, if you answered D and E, you’re correct!  But even if you got both questions wrong, there’s no need to fret — you still may be smarter than most college seniors when it comes to knowing America’s history, government and economics. 

That’s the upshot of a new study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.  In “Failing Our Students, Failing America,” ISI tested 14,419 freshmen and seniors at 50 U.S colleges on the basics of American civics.  The result:  Freshman averaged 50.4 percent; seniors averaged 54.2 percent, both failing scores if translated into grades. 

But these failing grades are just the tip of the iceberg.  Not one of the 50 schools selected added even 10 percentage points of knowledge between students’ freshman and senior years.  And, believe it or not, at eight schools freshmen outscored seniors, highlighting a phenomenon known as “negative learning,” where “Spending three years at these colleges appears to have reduced one’s knowledge of America.”

Interestingly, students at “elite” schools didn’t get much for their high-priced educations.  Seniors attending schools ranked most highly by U.S. News and World Report averaged only 2.8 points higher than freshmen (56.6 percent to 59.4 percent).  Harvard seniors had the highest average score at 69.6 percent, six points higher than its freshman, but still inexcusably low.  Cornell University students actually lost an average of five points between their freshman and senior years, which means that at $33,000 a year, Cornell seniors are paying about $20,000 for each 1-point decrease in civics knowledge.

Part of the problem is that, according to the survey, the average college senior takes only four courses in history, political science and economics during his college career.  Given that students typically complete 40 courses in attaining a bachelor’s degree, young Americans are spending too little of their class time learning the basics about their nation’s history and institutions. 

Another problem is that many civics courses do not cover the most essential material.  The study found that at seven colleges most seniors had not completed even one American history course.  While courses like “Cultural History of Rap” (UCLA), “The Social Construction of Whiteness and Women” (UMASS) and “Multicultural Biblical Criticism” (Harvard), may be riveting, they simply cannot substitute for the basic civics courses our young people clearly desperately need.

Critics counter that basic civics courses belong in high school curricula, while university courses are supposed to teach advanced material.  But, as this study clearly shows, that’s not happening.  A rudimentary understanding of America’s history and institutions serves, like the foundation of a house, as the necessary basis for the development of the critical thinking skills cultivated in advanced courses.  Understanding that history sometimes repeats itself, and often rhymes, how can we expect students to discuss intelligently, say, the Iraq war, when they have little factual knowledge of previous American wars? 

America’s Founding Fathers were united in the belief that America’s freedom would survive only if each generation understood its founding principles and the sacrifices made to attain them.  They believed that, as the saying goes, “freedom is not free,” and understood that, as Samuel Webster said, “A wise, a knowing and a learned people are the least likely of any in the world to be enslaved.” 

And it’s true.  The study found that students who gained more civic knowledge during college were more likely to vote and engage in other civic activities than students who gained less.

Perhaps the study’s most troubling finding was that foreign students (of whom there were 573,000 in 2003, according to Department of Education estimates) at American colleges learn virtually nothing about America’s history and institutions, which the report criticizes as “squandering an opportunity to foster greater understanding of America’s institutions in an increasingly hostile world.” In fact, the average foreign senior scored 2.9 points lower on the American history section of the civic literacy exam than the average foreign freshman, which is no surprise given that the former typically had not taken a single course on American history. 

There is a silver lining to the doom and gloom of this report, one that once again underscores the indispensability of traditional family life.  ISI discovered that quality of family life was a significant determinant of civics knowledge and understanding. Specifically:

“College seniors whose families engaged in frequent conversations about current events and history, whose parents were married and living together, and who came from homes where English was the primary language all tended to learn more than students who lacked these advantages.”

Overall, the combined effect of parents staying married, speaking English at home and frequently discussing current events and history added 4.8 points to their child’s civic learning score, an effect even more robust than that of going to college. 

This week saw a prestigious American university attempt to justify inviting an international terrorist to speak on its campus as a matter of “freedom of speech,” a right the school has denied the ROTC since the 1960s.  It would be nice if more American college students knew the origins of our freedoms and the sacrifices required to preserve them.   

You can take ISI’s Civics Quiz here