ACTA in the News | Historical Literacy

Today’s Students Are Dangerously Ignorant of Our Nation’s History. And Our Failing Education System Is to Blame.

REALCLEAREDUCATION   |  July 9, 2024 by Bradley Jackson and Michael B. Poliakoff

When Benjamin Franklin famously said, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” he was, as usual, prescient.

This summer, the democratic republic known as the United States of America is 248 years old, and civically minded organizations around the country are already busily working on plans to celebrate our nation’s 250th birthday in 2026. Such a milestone is a cause for real celebration; by most reckonings, we are the longest-lasting democracy in history. Democracies are fragile: The Athenian democracy never made it to 200. Americans should use this anniversary as an opportunity for sober reflection on the current state, as well as the future, of our own democratic republic.

There is much for which to be thankful, as America’s free market economy and all-volunteer military force are still the envy of the world. There is also much to give us pause regarding the durability of our institutions, the moral fiber of our leaders, and the prospects for free government at home and abroad. It should be obvious: Challenges to election integrity—typically a sign of disease in a free body politic—an assault on our Capitol, and a looming election in which 25% of voters are dissatisfied with both major candidates are not cause for carefree celebration. 

Oxford philosopher of history R.G. Collingwood wrote, “All history is an attempt to understand the present by reconstructing its determining conditions.” In these times, it should come as a dire warning that without a doubt, most young American college graduates are nowhere close to having the historical perspective to guide them through the rough political climate we face.

How much do today’s college students really know about their nation’s past? The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has conducted a fresh national survey of college students to answer just this question. The results are concerning.

Sixty percent of college students could not correctly identify the term lengths of members serving in U.S. Congress. Sixty-three percent were unable to identify the chief justice of the Supreme Court. These are multiple-choice questions. Students did not have to recall John Roberts’s name, they merely had to recognize it, and a large majority failed. The same is true for the Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, whose name was only known to 35% of students. Sixty-eight percent did not know that impeachment trials occur before the Senate, despite living through two presidential impeachments as well as the impeachment trial of a cabinet official.  

If these students are not reading the newspaper, it does not seem to be because they are busy studying their history lessons. A majority of students believe—falsely—that the Constitution was written in 1776, rather than 1787. This suggests two things: First, most students do not understand the origin of our Constitution—how the Articles of Confederation proved unworkable, how James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and others gathered in Philadelphia to make amendments but emerged instead with a new form of government, which the American people then debated before adopting. (This explains another survey result, which shows that a majority of students could not identify the purpose of the Federalist Papers.)

Students who believe the Constitution was written in 1776 do not understand the purpose and meaning of the Constitution. Second, and more importantly, these students clearly have not learned the true events of 1776, and thus their yearly Independence Day celebrations on July 4th are sadly hollow and devoid of content. They enjoy the barbecues and the fireworks, but they often lack a basic understanding of what is being honored by the holiday.

America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, once explained that the Constitution of 1787 was like a silver frame surrounding an apple of gold. The golden apple, he said, was the Declaration of Independence of 1776, the principles of which animate the republic, dedicate it to liberty and human equality, and cause it, so long as it adheres to such principles, to be a light unto the other nations, a beacon of freedom to all people. It was also President Lincoln who said in his Gettysburg Address that in America the government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Of course, only 23% of students were able to identify the source of that quote, and we may fear something yet more dangerous: that not many more understand what it means.

None of this is the fault of the students. Numbers like these do not arise from lazy pupils but from feckless pedagogues who are failing in their charge. Fewer than 20% of American colleges and universities require a course on United States government or history to graduate, according to data ACTA has compiled for our curricular study, This is unacceptable. Higher education that is worthy of its name would do better, and our universities must do better for our Constitution to endure another two decades, let alone two centuries. Every student should be required to take U.S. government and history to earn a college degree. Some states, such as South Carolina and Texas, already mandate this, and more should follow suit.   

In a democratic republic such as ours, citizens must be informed for the commonwealth to function. As George Washington said in his Farewell Address, “In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” Far from being enlightened, our students today are seldom even taught the basics. This must change, for the sake of the students and for the future of our nation.

This post appeared on RealClearEducation on July 9, 2024.


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