To be ignorant of history, wrote Cicero, is to be a child forever. Centuries later, Thomas Jefferson admonished our young republic that freedom and ignorance can never exist together.
American higher education has generally abandoned its obligation to prepare graduates who have the knowledge and understanding to take up meaningful roles in our free society. ACTA is working hard to change that.
WHAT WE ARE DOING
Understanding the Problem
Our first task is to help the American public and higher education trustees and policymakers understand the extent of the problem. In 1999 ACTA commissioned the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut to survey seniors at the nation’s 55 most prestigious colleges and universities to see if they could answer basic questions on the nation’s history. These questions were typical of a standard high school curriculum, many of them replicating questions from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The shocking results—81% of these seniors from elite institutions received the equivalent of a “D” or “F”—would soon reverberate through the U.S. Capitol itself.
"History is a discipline in decline. There is a profound ignorance not only among students but among their teachers as well. This study confirms that."
— Oscar Handlin, University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University
On President’s Day, February 21, 2000, ACTA reported the findings in its report, Losing America’s Memory. Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century,” with the endorsement of historian David McCullough. Congress moved quickly. On June 30 of that year, Concurrent Resolution 129, introduced by Senator Joseph Lieberman on behalf of Senators Gorton, Smith, Cleland, Byrd, Conrad, Bennett, and Grams, and unanimously adopted, took note of ACTA’s survey. The Concurrent Resolution called for boards of trustees and college administrators, as well as state officials responsible for public higher education, to review their standards and add requirements for the study of United States history.
What Will They Learn?™ Project
ACTA continues to monitor the state of historical knowledge among college students. The What Will They Learn?™ project takes note of which schools require American history or government and which do not. In 2012, we commissioned Gfk Roper OmniTel to survey college graduates again. Unfortunately, the findings were as dismal as the initial survey. Only 17% of college graduates could identify Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as the source of the phrase, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Only 20% could identify James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.” Nearly two-thirds were unaware that the term of a U.S. Senator is six years, and 43% could not even identify the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Engaging the Public, Trustees, and Policymakers
In 2012, ACTA testified before the U.S. Congress, endorsing the restoration of a day of commemoration on George Washington's actual birthday. In 2008, ACTA coordinated the publication and release of E Pluribus Unum, a report by The Bradley Project designed to start a conversation about America’s National Identity. The product of a two-year study involving a number of our nation’s leading academics, public figures, journalists, educators and policy experts, it has attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers to its website. In 2003, with support from the Daniels Foundation, ACTA quickly responded to a call from civic leaders and scholars at the White House Forum on American History, Civics, and Service and issued We the People, A Resource Guide to Promoting Historical Literacy for Governors, Legislators, Teachers, and Citizens. Through op-eds and newspaper opinion pieces, ACTA reminds the public of all that our nation loses if it forgets its past. We are in constant contact with trustees, making them aware of the need to ensure a general education requirement for all students that ensures their basic understanding of this nation and its free institutions. And little by little, colleges and universities are rising to the challenge.