George Washington and the Need for Enlightened Citizenship

Dr. Richard Brake
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Posted: Feb 22, 2011 12:01 AM
George Washington and the Need for Enlightened 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, Farewell Address

Yesterday was President’s Day, which unfortunately has become less about celebrating our country’s greatest statesmen and more about selling cars, furniture, and other big-ticket items. However, today is the actual anniversary of George Washington’s birthday (born February 22, 1732), and with some of the commercial buzz dying down from Monday’s mega-sales, perhaps this is the better day to really reflect upon the meaning and significance of the father of our country’s indispensable public career. After all, it was Washington’s Birthday, and not the more general “President’s Day” that Congress intended to commemorate when it passed a statute in 1880 establishing the holiday in the first place.

It was not so long ago, in fact, that a staple of any proper celebration of Washington’s Birthday was a formal reading of his famous Farewell Address, which Washington had published in Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser on September 17, 1796. In this most prescient piece of presidential advice that is remarkably appropriate for today’s contentious political climate, Washington warned of the “baneful effects of the party spirit” and to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” He also reminded his countrymen that “morality is the necessary spring of popular government.”

However, it is Washington’s insight above regarding the critical connection between education, opinion, and citizenship that I’d like to spend a moment pondering, especially in light of a new study from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) entitled Enlightened Citizenship: How Civic Knowledge Trumps a College Degree in Promoting Active Civic Engagement, that discovers fascinating linkages and non-linkages between these phenomena.

In his retirement, Washington became a strong advocate for a national university, convinced as he was of the importance of grooming enlightened and public-spirited leaders who could guide the Republic through its formative years. And Washington backed up this priority in his will, which contained a large bequest of corporate stock to Congress as the initial investment for such an enterprise (Congress, like it so often does, failed to enact the necessary legislation, though it did eventually found the military academies at Annapolis and West Point).

The bottom-line is that Washington, like his fellow founders Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin who also founded universities, was convinced of the absolute need in a republic for institutions of higher learning that would produce not only enlightened but engaged citizens willing and able to perform the crucial duties of responsible citizenship.

Fast-forward to today and the battery of findings from ISI’s national civic literacy initiative that reveals an alarming epidemic of civic ignorance on the part of college graduates, even those from America’s most elite universities http://www.americancivicliteracy.org. After surveying more than 28,000 freshmen and seniors from 85 separate colleges with a basic 60-question multiple choice test on American history, government, and economics, the average American college student failed the exam with a 54% score, and no school’s students earned above a D average. Less than half of college graduates knew essential facts about the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, Judicial Review, NATO, and Keynesianism, and at Ivy League Schools like Yale, Cornell, and Princeton, their seniors did worse than their freshmen on the same test, what ISI calls “negative learning.”

So what may be the consequences of this civic ignorance for the long-term health of American citizenship?

In its survey of a random sample of 2500 adults, college educated and not, ISI not only assessed the civic knowledge of these respondents, but it also asked them a battery of ten questions regarding the extent of their civic engagement. For example, had these Americans registered to vote and voted at least once in their life (what ISI termed “passive” engagement)? Or, had they gone beyond the bare civic minimum and devoted some their time, talent and treasure to the political process (“active” engagement)? For instance, had they worked on a campaign at least once in their life? Had they donated money to a campaign, or attended a political rally? What about signing a petition, contacting a public official, or writing a letter to the editor? Finally, had they tried to persuade others to vote for a candidate, or had they been a candidate themselves for elective office? As you might suspect, there was a wide array of responses and levels of engagement recorded, ranging from 92% of respondents registering to vote, 64% signing a petition, 56% contacting a public official, 40% donating to a campaign, 25% writing a letter to the editor, and a scant 6% running and winning elective office.

Interestingly, most colleges and universities claim in their mission statements that one of their primary goals is to encourage the kind of civic engagement outlined here. So, does the college experience make the grade in terms of civic engagement?

If ISI’s empirical analysis is any guide, the answer would have to be “No.” On the impact of a college degree on its measure of “active” civic engagement, the survey reveals that a college education had “zero” positive influence on encouraging those activities beyond voting. In this regard, college had the same neutral impact as frequent emailing, “Facebook” use, and primetime television viewing. Not surprisingly, the frequent playing of video games led the way in its “negative” relationship with civic participation.

Conversely, those doing well on the civic literacy test were much more likely to engage aggressively in the electoral process. In fact, greater civic knowledge was the leading variable explaining higher levels of active civic engagement that ISI examined (other positively correlated variables included frequent reading and discussion of history and current events, as well as frequent religious attendance). Taken together, ISI’s current research reveals a clear connection between a firm knowledge of America’s history and institutions, reading and discussing those matters with family and friends, and then concrete participation in the political process.

As Washington predicted, a greater understanding of the roots of America’s republic should translate into a public-spiritedness that is vital to republican governance. Second, given the current disconnect between the college degree and adequate civic knowledge, and the direct connection between knowledge and engagement, it would seem logical that colleges could boost citizenship by once again making civic education a top priority. For too long, colleges have abandoned the kind of core curriculum that highlights the story of America’s constitutional republic, instead opting for a watered-down, politically correct, and multicultural version that seems to have fostered civic amnesia rather than civic knowledge. What better way to honor Washington’s memory than for the American Academy to re-dedicate itself to a more rigorous, demanding, and traditional brand of instruction that restores American politics and history to its proper place in the curriculum. That’s the kind of birthday celebration worthy of the Father of our Country.