Suzanne Fields

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.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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