Philanthropists | General Education

Editorial: Will they ever learn? They should

THE AUGUST CHRONICLE   |  November 6, 2019 by Editorial Staff

Teens and young adults can tell you who Post Malone, Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X are.

Their parents could tell you who quarterbacks their favorite football teams, or which contestant got eliminated last week on their favorite reality TV competition.

Could all of them tell you who America’s third president was? Or even name two current U.S. Supreme Court justices?

That’s part of the problem.

As predictable as the changing seasons, studies emerge that reveal in stark detail our citizens’ pitiful ignorance of American history and current civics.

Most recently the news was delivered through a national study commissioned by the nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni. About 1,000 adults answered 15 questions about U.S. politics, past and present. An undisclosed number were college graduates.

You might want to take an aspirin before reading further.

When asked who authored the New Deal – President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s post-Depression public works program – 18% of adults and 12% of college grad said it was freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Fewer than half of survey respondents correctly identified John Roberts as the current chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. But 26% said it was Brett Kavanaugh, who was sworn in just last year. And 14% said Antonin Scalia – who died three years ago.

Nearly two-thirds of the survey group didn’t know the correct term lengths for representatives and senators in Congress.

Past surveys in past years weren’t much better. In 2011, 38% of Americans couldn’t pass the U.S. citizenship test required of immigrants; 65% couldn’t say what happened at the Constitutional Convention; and 40% didn’t know America’s adversaries in World War II.

That was from a survey of 1,000 U.S. adults, in an issue of Newsweek magazine titled “How Dumb Are We?”

A better question: Should we care?


The correct answers aren’t boring facts. They comprise the foundation of what you should know to be a truly engaged, informed American participating in the process of choosing the people who lead us.

Chris Talgo, a former teacher and a current editor at the nonprofit Heartland Institute think tank, has shared ways to remake the barren landscape of American civics ignorance.

For one, overhaul civics standards. Don’t just skim the subjects. Drill down to what makes the information important and useful to the students.

“The United States is an exceptional place, but most students are being taught the opposite is true. Yes, some truly terrible things have happened in America – just as they have in all countries – but the United States’ commitment to personal freedom has made America the most powerful, wealthy, successful nation the world has ever seen,” Talgo wrote earlier this year. “Students need to understand these ideas. Civics isn’t about laws, it’s about rights and personal freedom.”

Also, don’t focus civics standards on merely attaining knowledge. Get students directly involved. Take field trips to state legislatures or local council meetings to see government operate. it would even be instructive to see how lawmakers also struggle.

Even if changes were implemented now, civics knowledge won’t surge instantly. It took our country a while to get this negligent. It’ll take a while for that knowledge to rise to the level it deserves.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More