Trustees | General Education

How Gorsuch’s SCOTUS tap is a painful reminder of civic ignorance

THE HILL   |  March 29, 2017

While the nine members of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) hold enormous sway over the direction of American jurisprudence and over everyday life, striking new evidence suggests that most Americans are clueless about who sits on the Supreme Court bench.

A just-released C-SPAN survey found that while Americans agree about the Court’s importance, most know little about it themselves: 90% of likely voters believe that the Supreme Court’s decisions have impact on their daily lives, but 57% of likely voters overall and 73% of likely voters under age 35 can’t name a single Justice.

What a sad example of precisely what is wrong in the body politic. Even as the public affirms the importance of civics, far too many Americans are consistently unable to name important facts or explain fundamental processes of our nation’s history and system of government.

While troubling, these answers are also hardly surprising when nearly 10% of college graduates named Judith Sheindlin—better known as TV’s Judge Judy—as a member of the Supreme Court, according to a 2015 American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) survey.

And, as the C-SPAN survey found, even as Judge Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings get underway, 72% of likely voters are unable to identify him as President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee—including 36% of the “SCOTUS informed,” using C-SPAN’s definition.

To be considered “SCOTUS informed” by C-SPAN, a respondent need only be able to identify one Supreme Court Justice and acknowledge following Supreme Court-related news either “very often” or “somewhat often.” The ability to name a solitary Supreme Court Justice and to sometimes follow Court-related news is a far cry from the level of civic engagement needed today. Even America’s premier public affairs television network, it seems, does not expect much of her citizens.

This low bar inadvertently exposes the regrettable truth: Just as civic engagement has declined, so too have standards for civic literacy. 

Shamefully colleges and universities, including ones that draw down state funding are long on rhetoric about preparing citizens and leaders but seem content to shirk their civic responsibility. ACTA’s 2016–17 study of core curricula found that just 18% of colleges and universities require their students to take a course in U.S. history or government. Many schools’ curricular requirements are startlingly porous, allowing courses of remarkable parochialism to pass muster. Courses such as “America Through Baseball” or “Introduction to Video Game Culture” may be entertaining, but they can never substitute for the rigorous, intellectually-serious, and broad-based study of American history, institutions, and ideas.

Some progress is being made at the high school level, as more than a dozen states have established graduation requirements that include assessment of civic literacy, but higher education bears unique responsibility for ensuring that newly-minted citizens have the factual grounding and critical thinking skills they need as they come of age. Colleges and universities ignore this responsibility at their peril and to the detriment of us all.

Now more than ever, the imperative for change is clear. Colleges and universities need to walk the walk and require coursework on American institutions and their development. Alumni and donors can use their influence to support programs that promote civic knowledge, such as the Alexander Hamilton Institute or Ashland University’s Ashbrook Center.  Boards of trustees must exercise their fiduciary duties to ensure that all undergraduates fulfill requirements for the study of a topic so essential for the future of a free society.  

Not to do so is to be complicit in the civic disempowerment of those who should be most ready for informed citizenship. It is civic knowledge—from the founding of the republic to the function of our highest government institutions— that empowers citizens and safeguards the republic in which we live.


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