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Trustees | General Education

Confronting the hard truths of America’s civic illiteracy

WASHINGTON EXAMINER   |  February 1, 2016 by Eric Bledsoe

With the primary and caucus season beginning today, voters will no doubt have heard candidates’ calls for tuition-free college or easier access to higher education. They have yet to hear those candidates call for education that prepares graduates for informed citizenship. Before considering college without cost, the nation should ensure college is worthwhile as our institutions prepare a new generation of leaders.

We have strayed far from the vision of Thomas Jefferson, who said, “No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity.” If universities, legislators, and the citizenry ignore this crisis, these words will continue to haunt us as we confront the hard truths of American civic illiteracy that can turn democracy to chaos.

Recently, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) released a major report: “The Crisis in Civic Education.” ACTA’s curricular survey of over 1,100 colleges and universities shows that only 18 percent of them require students to take a course in U.S. history or government. In secondary education, the results are equally dismal. In 2014, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed through their civics test that one in four high-school seniors did not have “proficient” civic knowledge. Moreover, over one-third of 12th-grade students did not have “basic” knowledge of American civics. The NAEP governing board has since shot the messenger that brings such bad news by eliminating the high school civics test.

The report documents the appalling consequences of our educational failure. Less than 20 percent of American college graduates knew what the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation were; nearly half could not identify the correct term lengths of Congress; and almost 10 percent thought Judith Sheindlin “Judge Judy” served on the Supreme Court.

Most of the attempts to address civic education conflate rhetoric with results. The Department of Education’s “A Crucible Moment” and the Lumina Foundation’s “Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP)” emphasize “civic engagement.” But with a flaccid commitment to setting clear course requirements with real testing for results, reports like these promise little beyond verbose abstraction. Neither report delivers where it counts. Both fail to recommend robust curricular reform that would reflect the foundational knowledge of American history and government essential to a healthy republic. The DQP revealingly asserts that “course equivalents are not proxies for proficiency.” In other words, the report makes the absurd claim that requiring a course in civics has nothing to do with civic proficiency.

Without sacrificing academic freedom, colleges and universities must uphold their responsibilities to the public by cultivating curricula that prepare students for engaged citizenship. They must hire faculty who have expertise in America’s military, diplomatic, and constitutional history. Furthermore, state legislatures should follow the examples of Nevada, Oklahoma, Georgia and Texas, whose governing bodies have stipulated that their states’ public institutions require the study of American history and government.

An engaged citizen must understand all the triumphs and tragedies that comprise our complex history and identity. Robert Penn Warren, citing Polish author Adam De Gurowski, said that “America is unique among nations because other nations are accidents of geography or race, but America is based on an idea. Behind the comedy of proclaiming that idea from Fourth of July platforms there is the solemn notion, Believe and ye shall be saved. That abstraction sometimes does become concrete [and] is a part of the American experience — and of the American problem — the lag between idea and fact, between word and flesh.”

America’s “lag between idea and fact, between word and flesh” is the crux of her identity. An honest and comprehensive study of her history and constitution is the only guarantee of the cultivation of an informed electorate. Education is the prerequisite for engaged citizenship. Knowing how America has succeeded and failed to bridge the gap between abstract text and concrete independence is essential to the incarnation of life, liberty, and happiness and the more perfect union for which we strive.

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