Only 36 percent of Americans could pass a multiple-choice civics test of the kind that is administered to immigrants seeking to become citizens. Sixty percent don’t know which countries the United States fought in World War II. Fifty-seven percent don’t know how many justices serve on the Supreme Court. Only 24 percent know what Benjamin Franklin was famous for. (Hint: It wasn’t inventing the lightbulb.)
Those are just some of the dispiriting results of a national survey sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. The poll confirms that there is a national emergency of civics illiteracy, and it is getting worse: Seventy-four percent of those over age 65 could pass the citizenship exam (which requires correctly answering just six out of 10 questions), but only 19 percent of those under 45 could do so. Even getting a college degree does not guarantee a minimal knowledge of U.S. history. In surveys of college graduates commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, fewer than 20 percent could identify the Emancipation Proclamation, only 42 percent knew that the Battle of the Bulge occurred during World War II, and one-third were unaware that Franklin D. Roosevelt had introduced the New Deal. We are a democracy at risk of being too ignorant to govern ourselves.
So it is a matter of national concern that the California State University (CSU) system is on the verge of further diluting its already inadequate history and government requirements. CSU may not have as much prestige as the better-known University of California system, but it has about twice as many students. The largest four-year university system in the nation, CSU enrolls about 484,300 students, with 23 campuses and eight off-campus centers. It awards nearly half of the bachelor’s degrees in the nation’s most populous state. It is also the largest producer of teachers in the state and among the largest in the country, graduating about 6,800 K-12 teachers every year. But how can teachers teach what they have never learned?
In 2017, CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White, a biologist, issued a seemingly innocuous executive order standardizing general education requirements across the CSU system. The result is not so innocuous: At universities such as Cal State Fullerton and Cal State San Diego, which had required students to take more social science than at other campuses, students will no longer have to study world history to graduate. As a result, dozens of classes of world history and Western civilization won’t be taught, and thousands of students will leave college ignorant of those subjects.
Even greater changes are afoot as a result of a General Education Task Force appointed by the CSU Faculty Senate — a task force that included faculty members, administrators and students but no practicing historians. The task force recommends a radical revision of the “American Institutions” requirement that has existed since 1961 “to ensure that students acquire knowledge and skills that will help them to comprehend the workings of American democracy” through a “comprehensive study of American history and American government.”
Currently, most CSU students must complete two classes to meet this requirement. The task force recommended reducing this to just one class in the field of “Democracy in the U.S., which may include American and California government and history.” The most important word in this sentence is “may”: It suggests that, if these changes are implemented, CSU students will be able to graduate without having taken a single class in U.S. history. Indeed, history is barely mentioned in the task force report, which relegates it to something called “cross-cutting values” along with “diversity and social justice” and “global awareness and civic engagement.”
This change is part of a broader downsizing of general education requirements designed, according to the task force, to “encourage persistence, graduation, and closure of equity gaps.” Translated from academic gobbledygook, this seems to suggest that the way to increase graduation rates is by decreasing the amount of general knowledge that students are required to master. The task force also waxes piously about the need to update educational requirements that have supposedly “stagnated” since the last major revision in 2008, “while the diversity of students, education, workplace skills and needs, and technology have, by sharp contrast, changed dramatically.”
There is little doubt that our society is changing rapidly, but one thing will never change as long as we remain a democracy: the need for voters to know the essentials of our history and government. That is an imperative the Faculty Senate task force seems to have overlooked. “Should it be approved, this change would be a disastrous development for CSU students, the state of California, and indeed the country as a whole,” says Ethan J. Kytle, chairman of the history department at Cal State Fresno. The good news is that there is still time for the CSU Board of Trustees to reject this ill-considered “reform” and to strike a blow for American democracy.