Can you, without peeking at a textbook or doing a quick Google search, say roughly when Abraham Lincoln was elected president? Could you name which country the United States sparred with during the Cold War? Do you know where the phrase “all men are created equal” comes from?
If so, congratulations. Turns out you’re smarter than many college students.
For the second straight year, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has given university students a 60-question, multiple-choice civics test. These exams represent the first nationwide attempts to determine what the students know about American history and culture. And this year’s report is as sobering as last year’s was.
“The overall average score for the approximately 7,000 seniors who took the American civic literacy exam was 54.2 percent, an F,” the report says. And at some leading schools, seniors scored worse than freshmen. “Students apparently ‘unlearned’ what they once knew,” the report says, a chilling example of “negative learning.”
And as the examples above indicate, the ISI test is hardly a graduate-level exam. You don’t need to be class valedictorian, for example, to identify the “series of government programs” that President Franklin Roosevelt proposed as “the New Deal” and not as “supply-side economics.”
Why does this matter?
Well, you can’t build a house (or a bridge or a skyscraper) without a solid foundation. Until a student has mastered the basics of American history, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, that student won’t be able to understand the Civil War, the New Deal or, for that matter, the division of powers in today’s federal government.
For more than a century, our universities held themselves up as the places that people could go to learn the shared history of our American heritage. In 1896, for example, future President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech he called “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” He told students and educators that it was their job to remember their country’s past. “The college should serve the state as its organ of recollection, its seat of vital memory,” Wilson said.
He’d probably be appalled at what today’s Princeton seniors know. They averaged a meager 61.9 percent on ISI’s exam.
Colleges are failing to teach students much for one simple reason: They’re not trying very hard. ISI found that “the average senior had taken a total of only four courses in history, political science and economics.” Some Ivy League schools fell below even this paltry average. “Most Cornell seniors had not taken a single American history course,” the study found. This was also the case at Princeton.
Ironically, when it comes to a civic education, students who pay the least often learn the most. ISI found that Yale, Princeton, Duke and Cornell -- four private colleges that cost more than $30,000 per year -- reduced civic knowledge. Meanwhile, Murray State, Mississippi State, St. Cloud State, Illinois State and Eastern Connecticut State -- five public colleges that cost less that $15,000 (for out-of-staters) -- “increased civic knowledge by eight points or more.” Let’s hope the leaders of tomorrow are culled from these campuses, not their more expensive counterparts.
Not long ago, universities focused on civics education. They considered it important that students learn about the Founders and understand the people and events that shaped this great country.
That’s no longer true. Today’s “great” universities are failing the leaders of tomorrow by failing to teach them about yesterday. Unless this generation of educators decides to follow Woodrow Wilson’s call and start studying the past, our nation’s future could be grim indeed.