If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be. ( -- Thomas Jefferson
The third president of the United States depended on the educated yeoman farmer to carry the burden of enlightened citizenship in the new country. Civic duty demanded an informed public. Many Americans couldn't aspire to a college education -- anything beyond five or six years in a primitive school was higher education -- or even aspire to vote, but the young country was full of the potential to change all that. And it did. Now most young people aspire to the university, and advanced degrees are commonplace, but a lot of us who are educated are not always enlightened.
In a shocking study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), "civic literacy" is found to be declining at some of our finest (and most expensive) colleges and universities. Many graduates leave college with less knowledge of American history, government, foreign affairs and economics than when they entered as freshmen. Knowledge apparently just evaporates. If the survey questions administered by a team of professors to 14,000 college students at 50 colleges had been a test in a college classroom, the average score would be 53.2 percent -- or simply an "F" for failure.
"Though a university education can cost upwards of $200,000 and college students on average leave campus $19,300 in debt," the report concludes, "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." We're not talking about Podunk A&M or West Tennessee Normal, but about the likes of Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Duke, Brown, Georgetown and University of California-Berkeley, the cream of the cream.
Harvard seniors scored highest, but their overall average was merely 69.6 percent, only 5.97 points higher than its freshmen, and worth a D-plus. (One Harvard student, however, did make the one perfect score.) Many of the students who took the test had done well on their SATs and other academic achievement tests, and were well prepared with excellent high school credentials, but they were not challenged at the prestigious universities to study civics or the historical narrative of the shaping of America.
The test was not loaded with tricks or esoteric questions. Given multiple choices, a majority could not say where they could find the phrase, "We hold these truths to be self evident." Several thought it was from "The Communist Manifesto." At many of these schools there is no requirement for even one course in American history.
It's not clear why the students did poorly, but several reasons suggest themselves. In several cases professors favored ideological interpretations that distort historical facts, or diverted students from the courses that would deepen an understanding of American history. The nation's flaws are emphasized in many courses, and taught as reasons to dismiss the nation's successful attempts to put things right.
In "Choosing the Right College," a guide to the American colleges that still provide the old-fashioned "liberal" education that today is properly called "conservative," John Zmirak offers clues to the problems exacerbated by tenured radical professors who focus angrily only on what's wrong with America, the founding fathers and their own fathers. "Like spoiled heirs who despise the family business that funds their leisure," he writes, "contemporary professors indulge in Oedipal ideologies that focus on killing, over and over and over again, our fathers."
Despite the respect and responsibility that we now extend to college-age students, we've forgotten their unripe vulnerability. No matter how smart they may seem, they're particularly open to uncritical acceptance of the notions of radical rebellion that dominate most college campuses on the left. Tradition is denigrated and dismissed before it's explored or understood.
But lest we smugly sneer at college seniors for what they don't know, we should see how we answer these questions ourselves: Where does the phrase the "wall of separation" between church and state appear? What Supreme Court decision ended legal racial segregation in the United States? Why were the Federalist Papers written? What is federalism? What is the Monroe Doctrine? What is meant by a "progressive" tax?
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut's department of public policy and was aptly titled, "Failing Our Students, Failing America." Thomas Jefferson knew that education was essential for the republic to remain strong. He wrote that the purpose of education was to "enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom." That was crucial in his 18th century, and it's crucial in our own 21st. We forget at our peril.