The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) released a new report entitled “A Crisis in Civic Education” at the beginning of 2016. Based on the numbers in the report as well as those available from other reputable sources such as the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), we truly do have a crisis on our hands.
In 1788, Noah Webster, often referred to as the “father of American scholarship and education”, wrote:
"But every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country; he should lisp the praise of liberty, and of those illustrious heroes and statesmen, who have wrought a revolution in her favor.
It is an object of vast magnitude that systems of education should be adopted and pursued which may not only diffuse a knowledge of the sciences but may implant in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue and of liberty and inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government and with an inviolable attachment to their own country."
There is a lot of truth to that sentiment, which is still relevant today.
If one doesn’t understand the history of his country or how its government works (and why), yet he still votes, how informed is that vote? Furthermore, how much more open to the influences of a demagogue or a flatter is that uneducated man? Yes, our system of government depends upon an educated population.
That’s why the latest report from the ACTA is so horrifying. From NAEP, we have long known that high school seniors are woefully undereducated in American history and civics. The latest report from 2010 shows that only 24% of high school seniors were considered proficient in civics and only a pathetic 12% of them were considered proficient in history. And being “proficient” wasn’t much of a challenge when you look at the sample tests.
Alas, the ACTA went and did the unthinkable: It surveyed college graduates. Here’s how the ACTA describes the problem and its report:
“There is a crisis in American civic education. Survey after survey shows that recent college graduates are alarmingly ignorant of America’s history and heritage. They cannot identify the term lengths of members of Congress, the substance of the First Amendment, or the origin of the separation of powers. They do not know the Father of the Constitution, and nearly 10% say that Judith Sheindlin—‘Judge Judy’—is on the Supreme Court. Studies show that our colleges and universities are doing little or nothing to address the knowledge gap. A recent survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) of over 1,100 liberal arts colleges and universities found that only a handful—18%—require students to take even one survey course in American history or government before they graduate.”
Here are some of the results:
- Only 20.6% of respondents could identify James Madison as the Father of the Constitution. More than 60% thought the answer was Thomas Jefferson—despite the fact that Jefferson, as U.S. ambassador to France, was not present during the Constitutional Convention.
- College graduates performed little better: Only 28.4% named Madison, and 59.2% chose Jefferson.
- How do Americans amend the Constitution? More than half of college graduates didn’t know. Almost 60% of college graduates failed to identify correctly a requirement for ratifying a constitutional amendment.
- We live in a dangerous world—but almost 40% of college graduates didn’t know that Congress has the power to declare war.
- College graduates were even confused about the term lengths of members of Congress. Almost half could not recognize that senators are elected to six year terms and representatives are elected to two-year terms.
- Less than half of college graduates knew that presidential impeachments are tried before the U.S. Senate.
- And 9.6% of college graduates marked that Judith Sheindlin—“Judge Judy”—was on the Supreme Court!
Interestingly, ACTA identified a major difference between college graduates over the age of 65 and college graduates aged 25-34. Despite the confidence in knowledge often exhibited by younger college graduates, it turns out they’re actually not as knowledgeable as the people they hope to replace.
“Many of the figures may actually understate how poorly our colleges are doing because older respondents performed significantly better than younger ones. For example, 98.2% of college graduates over the age of 65 knew that the president cannot establish taxes—but only 73.8% of college graduates aged 25–34 answered correctly.
Most college graduates over age 65 knew how to amend the Constitution—76.7% answered correctly. But among college graduates aged 25–34, less than a third chose the right answer, and over half answered that the president must ratify an amendment, failing to comprehend how the division of powers among coequal branches protects citizens’ rights.”
The compounding results of these regular studies on what Americans know is deeply troubling, particularly since the trajectory of knowledge seems to be going ever lower. ‘Idiocracy’ here we come.
Devin is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Charlemagne Institute, which operates Intellectual Takeout, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and the Alcuin Internship. He is a graduate of Hillsdale College where he studied history and political science. Prior to co-founding Charlemagne Institute, he served as the Director of Development at the Center of the American Experiment, a state-based think tank in Minnesota.
Devin is a contributor to local and national newspapers, a frequent guest on a variety of talk shows, such as Minneapolis' KTLK and NPR's Talk of the Nation, and regularly shares culture and education insights presenting to civic groups, schools, and other organizations. In 2011, he was named a Young Leader by the American Swiss Foundation.
Devin and his wife have been married for eighteen years and have six children. When he's not working, Devin enjoys time with family while also relaxing through reading, horticulture, home projects, and skiing and snowboarding.