Trustees | General Education

Alabama Voices: A dangerous ignorance

MONTGOMERY ADVERTISER   |  July 5, 2007 by Gary Palmer

America is the world’s oldest functioning representative democracy. For 231 years, we have been governed under one Constitution. Our Constitution, the original “Contract with America,” established the framework for our national government and guaranteed the principles espoused in the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, indicated that the beliefs and ideas in the Declaration were commonly held throughout the colonies. In a letter to Richard Henry Lee dated May 8, 1825, Jefferson wrote that the object of the Declaration was “Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.” The Declaration, Jefferson wrote, “was intended to be an expression of the American mind.”

This expression of the American mind, as Jefferson so eloquently expressed it, seems far removed from the thinking that drives the policy and politics of America today. The men who signed their names to the Declaration were willing to risk all that they had–their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor–in defense of their core principles.

But 231 years later, there is some question and doubt that the average American even knows what those principles are or what they really mean primarily because they are no longer a central part of education.

The level of civic literacy is abysmal among American college students because few public high schools or colleges in America are doing an adequate job of teaching American civics and history.

In 2000, a survey of civic literacy among American college students done by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that only 60 percent knew that the Constitution established the division of powers between the states and the federal government. The study, “Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century,” found that only 26 percent of the students in the survey correctly associated the Emancipation Proclamation with freeing the slaves and only 22 percent knew that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was part of the Gettysburg address.

Only 34 percent of college students knew that George Washington was the general who led the American forces at Yorktown; 37 percent thought it was Ulysses S. Grant. And these answers came from students at America’s elite universities where entrance requirements are stringent.

In 2006, a survey of over 14,000 randomly selected freshmen and seniors from 50 colleges and universities nationwide was conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Results show that America’s colleges and universities are failing miserably when it comes to educating students about our nation’s history and its essential founding principles.

Even though the survey included some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities, the average score for the college seniors in the survey was an F (53.2 percent.)

The score for the freshmen was 51.7 percent, only 1.5 percent lower than the seniors. In addition, at some of the colleges, the freshmen actually scored higher than the seniors. This indicates that by the time these students graduate, they will know less about American history and civics than when they graduated from high school.

These findings indicate that few students are taking courses in civics and American history in our colleges and universities. This problem is compounded by the fact that so few major universities require civics or American history anymore. The ACTA study cited above reported that none of the nation’s top 55 colleges and universities required any history courses for graduation and only three–Colgate, Columbia and the University of the South–require one course in Western civilization.

It is obvious that what a person does not comprehend or even know cannot possibly be promoted and preserved as a core principle. Consequently, it is legitimate to question if after 231 years, the principles espoused in the Declaration of Independence are still “an expression of the American mind.”


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