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Policymakers | General Education

Losing touch with our independence

TRAVERSE CITY RECORD-EAGLE   |  July 3, 2010 by David Azerrad

In France, citizens commemorate the storming of the Bastille; in Spain, the day Christopher Columbus discovered America; and in most other countries, the national holiday commemorates formal independence.

In America, however, we celebrate the proclamation of a set of ideas—the self-evident truths that are captured in the Declaration of Independence and undergird the Constitution. America, in Lincoln’s immortal words, is a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We are united not by blood or ethnicity, but our shared commitment to the ideas of the Founding.

We are, however, losing touch with the roots of our independence, as the evidence showing widespread civic and historical illiteracy continues to mount.

According to a recent survey by The American Revolution Center, only 65 percent of Americans could place the beginning of our Revolution in the correct century. An earlier survey of college graduates found a third could not name the three branches of government.

Particularly worrisome is the abdication, at our colleges and universities, of the responsibility to educate the next generation of citizens. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has been surveying core requirements for our WhatWillTheyLearn.com college guide website. The results are alarming.

Nationally, less than 15 percent of the colleges and universities we reviewed require students to take a survey class in American history or government (neither the University of Michigan, nor Michigan State have such a requirement). The picture is particularly bleak at the top: You can graduate from any of the top 20 national universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, without having taken a single broad course in American history or government.

Many colleges claim they do have an American requirement, but close inspection shows it can be met with exceedingly narrow, if not frivolous, courses. Stanford students can take a class on a Japanese drum—”Perspectives in North American Taiko”—to fulfill their American cultures requirement. At the University of Colorado, “America Through Baseball” counts toward the United States Context requirement.

If our institutions of higher learning do not require real college-level work in American history or government, the next generation of citizens and leaders who graduate from them will be in danger of losing that common frame of reference that has sustained our free society for so many generations.

Indeed, a democratic republic such as ours is not self-perpetuating. It requires the understanding, commitment, and support of its citizens for its long-term health and survival. It requires each generation of citizens to receive an adequate grounding in the history of America’s free institutions and the principles which anchor them.

If we are to preserve our Republic and keep faith with those who established it, each of us must understand our rights and responsibilities. As we commemorate the Fourth of July, let us heed the advice of the author of the Declaration of Independence: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” said Thomas Jefferson, “it expects what never was and what never will be.”

David Azerrad is a senior researcher at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent non-profit in Washington, D.C. which oversees the free college guide website www.WhatWillTheyLearn.com.

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