Alumni | General Education

A Crisis in Civic Education

THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  October 10, 2018 by Michael Poliakoff

To the Editor:

In “Obituary for a Billion-Dollar Boondoggle” (The Chronicle Review, September 16), Sam Wineburg failed to acknowledge the urgent crisis in civic education that America faces today. Shooting the messenger for bringing the bad news does not address this threat to our future, either.

The assertion that Americans simply can’t deal with decontextualized questions is an approach that might make an ostrich blush. Such poor performance by college graduates should jolt the public into reevaluating our system of higher education — not continuing like business as usual.

We are dealing with a very real phenomenon. Unfortunately, institutions of higher education are not aiding the solution: Only 17.1% of American colleges and universities require their students to take a basic course in U.S. government or history, and only 3.2% require a foundational economics course. Instead, oddities like “Horror Films and American Culture” (University of Colorado), “Cultures of Childhood” (California Polytechnic–Pomona), and “US History: The History of Food” (Lindenwood University) are all deemed acceptable to fulfill a student’s U.S. government or history requirement. Are these the types of courses that Wineburg believes bring “contextualized” knowledge to develop engaged and informed citizens?

Teaching American History (TAH) certainly deserved some sharp criticism, but this is not the only education initiative to fall short of its initial intentions. The “Chicago Annenberg Challenge” and “Race to the Top” both drew substantial criticism. Many participating schools in the Annenberg Challenge lacked the positive results needed to justify replication elsewhere. Overall, students in participating schools had learned no more than students in regular public schools. Regarding the Race to the Top initiative, 11 states and the District of Columbia received millions of federal dollars in exchange for drastic changes to their education systems. Many states, however, fell short of the pledges made in exchange for the funding and did not follow through on their promises. Wineburg is curiously selective in his targeting of wasted money.

America is witnessing an era of civic disempowerment, a time when many young individuals are not equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary to contribute to the political future of a free society. This matters for every individual who wants to preserve our liberties. Independent of any federal legislation or mandates, states including Nevada, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas rise to the occasion by ensuring that all public institutions of higher education require a course in U.S. government or history.

What excuse is there for only 45% of Americans knowing that Neil Gorsuch is a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, or the 53% who did not know that Robert Mueller is special counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice? And yes, a shockingly high percentage of the ignorant are college grads. Do we ignore this as simply “decontextualized”?

ACTA’s 2016 report A Crisis in Civic Education and No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major highlighted the continued deficits in civic and historical education. In a multiple choice survey, almost 10% of college graduates thought that Judith Sheindlin — “Judge Judy” — was on the Supreme Court; almost 60% failed to identify correctly the requirement for ratifying a constitutional amendment. Well over 40% could not identify the term lengths of members of Congress.

Is it too much to ask that college students leave with a reasonable understanding of our system of government, its strengths and its weaknesses?

Let’s stop shooting the messenger, get our heads out of the sand, and find solutions.


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