Dr. Matthew Ladner

Few Yale seniors, it turns out, know which American President created the New Deal. Even fewer would know which one said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." It was Thomas Jefferson, and he and the other founders recognized that our system of ordered liberty would endure only if its citizens understood the nation's guiding principles.

The endurance of American democracy depends upon a broad knowledge of the nation’s history and an understanding of our institutions. Unfortunately, a lack of civic literacy abounds at the k-12 and university levels.

The National Center for Education Statistics administered a grade-level appropriate civics exam to a nationally representative sample of fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders in 2006. The percentage of students "demonstrating solid competency over the subject matter" was 25 percent of fourth graders, 24 percent of eighth graders, and 32 percent of twelfth graders.

The percentage of students scoring below even partial mastery of the material was 27 percent, 30 percent and 34 percent respectively. At every grade level tested, more students failed the exam than demonstrated a solid mastery.

Cue the predictable response: we all know that our k-12 schools under-perform, but luckily, we make up for it with the best system of higher education in the world. Well, not so much these days.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently released The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education's Failure to Teach America's History and Institutions. The study surveyed 14,000 randomly selected college freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities to measure their knowledge of four subjects: American history; government; America and the world; and the market economy.

The researchers found unsettling results. The average score, had the survey been an exam, was an F, with only 53 percent of items answered correctly. Worse still, there was little evidence of students having gained any knowledge on these subjects, as the seniors outscored the freshmen by only 1.5 percent. At many of the universities, including elite institutions such as Brown, Georgetown, and Yale, seniors knew less about these subjects than the freshmen. The researchers dubbed this phenomenon "negative learning gains."

Sadly, the news gets worse.

The American Institutes for Research (AIR) recently assessed the literacy of 1,800 graduating seniors from 80 randomly selected two- and four-year colleges and universities. What they found was not pretty.

Dr. Matthew Ladner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute and an expert on educational reform and school choice. Dr. Ladner holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston.
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