ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

A Crisis in Civic Education Executive Summary

January 2016

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.

Since 2000, institutions ranging from the Carnegie Corporation to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences have urged colleges and universities to take a much more active role in educating students for informed citizenship. And yet little good has come of their efforts. Instead of demanding content-based coursework, our institutions have, in too many places, supplanted the rigorous study of history and government—the building blocks of civic engagement—with community-service activities. These programs may be wholesome, but they give students little insight into how our system of government works and what roles they must fill as citizens of a democratic republic.

What knowledge students do receive of their history is often one-sided and tendentious. Lately, student protesters have sought to expunge historic figures like Thomas Jefferson or Woodrow Wilson from campus, deeming these men too flawed to deserve monuments or buildings that bear their names. These protesters properly remind us of the cancer of racism that has infected our nation, but their demands are made on campuses where there is little reason to believe that students are sufficiently grounded in knowledge and understanding of the history of America and its civic institutions to make sound judgments.

In a country that depends upon an educated populace, ignorance of our history and founding documents will be disastrous. An annual survey by the Newseum Institute gives point to the alarm: When asked to identify the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, one-third of Americans could not name a single right; 43% could not even name freedom of speech as one of those rights.1

How did we get to such a state? And what is to be done? In the following pages, we outline the problem, and, more importantly, what we must do to restore rich civic education for all students and especially the college graduates who will be our next generation of leaders.

  1. Newseum Institute, The 2015 State of the First Amendment (Washington, DC: Newseum Institute, 2015), 3, http://www.newseuminstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/FAC_SOFA15_report.pdf
  2. .