Trustees | General Education

Mike Masterson: Civics and history

Universal ignorance
NORTHWEST ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE   |  December 2, 2018 by Mike Masterson

Widespread ignorance among high school and even many college graduates when it comes to American government and history plays a significant role in our elections and likely in the nation’s future.

Articles dating back at least a decade document just how dire things have become when it comes to the shocking level of poor education in several important areas.

The biggest threat to the future of our democratic republic, I’m convinced, lies in a lack of proper education in history and how our government functions, aka civics.

NEA Today in 2017 reported on the crisis in civics education, saying only 25 percent of U.S. students achieved the proficiency standard on the NAEP Civics Assessment. Moreover, white students from wealthier school districts are four to six times likelier than black and Hispanic students from low-income schools to exceed that level.

The report said it was common until the 1960s for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government. But courses were slashed in ensuing decades, further losing ground to “core subjects” with the advent of standardized testing.

A survey for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reportedly found just 36 percent of Americans tested could pass a multiple-choice U.S. Citizenship Test requiring only 60 percent correct answers. Participants stumbled over simple questions such as the cause of the Cold War (2 percent answered climate change!). Worse still, the passing rate for those 45 and younger was a pathetic 19 percent.

Writing in The Atlantic, Jonathan Cole asks where such ignorance originates, and if the U.S. could have meaningful elections if its citizens have little knowledge of civics and history. A significant part of the responsibility lies, Cole believes, with failures in the American educational system.

He cites examples from eight years ago, including that Americans could better identify Michael Jackson as a music composer than understand the Bill of Rights are the first 10 amendments to our Constitution. Asked in which century the American Revolution occurred and whether the Civil War, the War of 1812 and the Emancipation Proclamation came before or after, more than 30 percent answered incorrectly.

Cole says things haven’t improved of late, citing a 2015 American Council of Trustees and Alumni study which revealed 80 percent of college seniors at 55 top-ranked schools would have received grades of D or F on a test based on high school civics curricula.

Over 40 percent of graduates, Cole reports, did not know the Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war. And about half of students could not correctly state the term lengths for members of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives.

A 2016 study on the inclusion of American history in the curricula of leading colleges and universities found more than three-fourths of students at the top 50 colleges and universities did not know the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

“That these are questions many Atlantic readers probably wouldn’t be able to answer confidently attests to the fact that the dearth of historical knowledge is a matter of education and not intelligence,” Cole adds.

Why such ignorance today? Cole says, according to the ACTA study, only seven of the nation’s top 25 liberal-arts colleges require history majors take a single class on U.S. history. The same is true at only four of the 25 top national universities and only 14 of the top 25 public institutions.

The statistics clearly tell this sad story. Economics professor Walter E. Williams of George Mason University recently wrote about studies revealing that only 30 percent of college grads tested could read and interpret a food label.

Williams also mentioned an article in News Forum For Lawyers, “Study Finds College Students Remarkably Incompetent” that cited a study from the American Institutes for Research revealing over 75 percent of two-year and 50 percent of four-year college students were incapable of completing everyday tasks. Some 20 percent of four-year college students demonstrated only basic mathematical ability, while 30 percent of two-year college students couldn’t progress past elementary arithmetic.

Adding further insult to injured education, Williams wrote, in January 2014 the U.S. Army Recruiting Command estimated 77.5 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. were unqualified for military service because of weak educational skills, poor physical fitness, illegal drug usage, medical conditions, or criminal records. In June of that year, the Department of Defense estimated that number at 71 percent.

It’s enough to make us wonder just what have we been doing in our public education system over the past six decades and why.

The Spanish American philosopher George Santayana rightly warned more than a century ago that those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Sadly, we have continued stumbling the treacherous downhill path toward wholesale repetitive ignorance.


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