The word deplorable understates the status of civic education at American colleges and universities. But there are new initiatives to address it, some led by trustees, some by legislatures. Such changes are not without controversy, but if an informed electorate matters—and it does—then these programs demand consideration.
How bad is our situation? When nearly one-third of college graduates cannot identify John Roberts as the Chief Justice of the United States, with 15% choosing instead Brett Kavanaugh and another 16% the late Antonin Scalia, it is bad. When 51% of college graduates cannot identify the term lengths of members of the Senate and House of Representatives, it is terrifyingly bad. And in terms of cause, it could hardly be a coincidence that barely 18% of the four-year colleges and universities in America require a foundational course on American history and government.
Nowhere, however, was the road to new college requirements without twists and bumps.
Consider Purdue University. In January 2019, President Mitch Daniels first proposed a civic literacy requirement, including both an exit exam for graduation as well as a curricular requirement. The University Senate discussed the proposal on several occasions but finally rejected it in April 2020, by a vote of 51-28. JoAnn Brouillette, the chair of the Board of Trustees’ Academic and Student Affairs Committee, recounted in a letter to the campus chapters of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) that the trustees had worked with three successive University Senate chairs before finally approving the new requirement over substantial faculty opposition. In the eyes of Purdue’s board and president, establishing an undergraduate requirement in civic education at a publicly funded university was an urgent duty, a reflection of their obligation to the students and the taxpayers of Indiana, and they put the new program in place.
That sense of urgency was not universally shared among faculty, especially members of Purdue’s AAUP chapters. While the professors with whom I spoke expressed general agreement that the goal is worthy and acknowledged the board’s ultimate authority, they objected to overturning the negative vote of the University Senate. In general, they held that Purdue’s shared governance, coupled with their expertise, gave them prerogatives in curricular decisions. They viewed the board’s action as overreach. One professor remarked that the new requirement is “a solution looking for a problem.” Another characterized the board’s resolution as “sentimental,” rather than objective.
But at Purdue and elsewhere, administrative impatience with extended faculty deliberation has long been brewing. Even as early as 1991, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, wrote, “In higher education, shifts of authority from faculty to administrative governance can usually be accounted for by the need to get decisions actually made—especially in a time as economically and politically stressful as the present.” Fast forward to the Purdue administrator who commented to me regarding the civic education controversy, “shared governance does not mean no governance.” Self-evidently, the implementation of the new requirement will benefit from the collaboration of all Purdue’s constituencies, combining administrative clarity with faculty expertise. It is unclear, however, that the new requirement would ever have gone forward without the trustees’ directive.
Henceforth, undergraduates on the West Lafayette flagship campus will have to pass an assessment of civic literacy as a graduation requirement, in addition to participating in programs that deepen their civic understanding and their engagement with contemporary political issues. Regional Purdue campuses, at their request, will implement the requirement one year later, giving their faculty time to design courses and programming. Key decisions regarding the assessment and the roster of programs that fulfill the requirement remain ahead, but notwithstanding the faculty’s discomfort with the process, even their dissent bespeaks strong interest in making the new requirement work well.
Until recently, no Arizona public university required undergraduate coursework on American history and government. In 2018, the Arizona Board of Regents began discussing a systemwide general education requirement, and in 2019, the board approved a policy focused on giving students the skills for engagement in “civil discourse founded in fundamental civic knowledge.” Regent Karrin Taylor Robson articulated the goal as “preparing citizens for a self-governing society.” There was significant dialogue pro and con, ending in an affirmative decision, and Regent Larry Penley, chair of the Academic Affairs and Educational Attainment Committee, noted that the process was overall robust and collaborative. The initial response of the universities was not entirely aligned with the aspiration of the regents, and there was substantial deliberation over wording, but after conversation with the campus presidents, the full board clarified that the requirement was not simply to be inclusion of civic awareness within the general education curriculum. Rather, it called for coursework that embraced the principles of American constitutional democracy, Founding documents, and landmark Supreme Court cases, along with basic economic knowledge and civic responsibility. Northern Arizona University has now completed its planning process, with the other two universities soon to follow.
Legislation passed in Spring 2021 specified that for students entering South Carolina’s public colleges and universities that Fall, there would be a graduation requirement for the study of United States history. On April 28, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster signed into law the Reinforcing College Education on America’s Constitutional Heritage (REACH) Act. The law now requires every college student to pass a course that, at a minimum, includes study of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, select Federalist Papers, the Emancipation Proclamation, and further documents concerning the African American struggle for freedom. Its path to adoption was arduous: Senator Larry Grooms, who first proposed the bill eight years ago, encountered resistance from several of the universities, which claimed that it would be expensive and was not necessary. Senator Grooms continued his advocacy. Ultimately, in his words, “We now have all the universities in South Carolina holding hands, and supporting this bill,” which passed the House 91-12 and received unanimous Senate approval.
Paul Carrese, director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, observed, “The strong commitments made by institutions and states to the study of American history and government is an encouraging sign. At a time of political polarization, this is the path to civil debate and informed civic participation.”
This article was originally featured here.