Ignorance is no excuse

Ashley Herzog
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Posted: Mar 30, 2009 9:05 PM

Before the federal stimulus package lavishes billions of dollars on higher education, taxpayers should demand that universities stop turning out civically illiterate graduates. Studies show that college students have alarmingly limited knowledge of America’s history, government, international relations and economic system, and universities don’t teach them.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute discovered this a few years ago, when it began testing 14,000 randomly selected freshmen and seniors in basic civic literacy. The dismal results: seniors scored an average of 53.2 percent, just 1.5 points higher than the freshmen.

Fewer than half the seniors knew that the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” can be found in the Declaration of Independence. Only 60 percent managed to place the Civil War in the right time period. Fifty-three percent didn’t understand the concept of federalism; 40 percent couldn’t define the law of supply and demand; 78 percent didn’t know what a “public good” is. Forty-seven percent couldn’t explain how wealth is generated in a free market system. When questioned about basic American history, such as when the first colony was established at Jamestown, about half the students got it wrong.

As ISI put it, “Though a university education can cost upwards of $200,000, and college students on average leave campus $19,300 in debt, they are no better off than when they arrived in terms of acquiring the knowledge necessary for informed engagement in a democratic republic and global economy.” Despite the outrageously inflated cost of tuition, ISI found last November that college graduates, on average, knew little more about civics than their less educated peers.

It’s hard to blame students for their ignorance, since they don’t learn what colleges don’t teach. While there was no relationship between a school’s prestige and civic learning, there was a strong relationship between students’ scores and the number of classes required in economics, American history and political science.

Notably, at several elite schools (including Brown, Georgetown and Yale), where classes in basic history and economics are brushed aside in favor of trendier subjects like “queer theory,” the seniors actually scored lower than the freshmen. That’s right: students at these schools are paying up to $40,000 a year to become dumber. Inexpensive state schools, which generally stick to the basics and don’t offer as many courses in politically correct nonsense, did a better job than the Ivy League of increasing their students’ knowledge. Students at no-frills schools like Grove City College, the University of Mobile, and Central Connecticut State showed the greatest improvement between freshman and senior year.

What should be done? ISI recommends raising the number of required courses in history, political science and economics, and improving the assessment of learning outcomes in these subjects. This is important because, as ISI found, “students who demonstrated greater learning of America's history and institutions were more engaged in citizenship activities such as voting, volunteer community service, and political campaigns.”

Last summer, when I wrote a column encouraging students not to blow their tuition money on frivolous classes, liberal bloggers accused me of “promoting ignorance.” But at least I can place the Civil War in the correct decade—which is more than a lot of my peers can say.

College students, and the taxpayers who help subsidize their education, are not getting their money’s worth.