Trustees | General Education

Opinion: Students need a civics education now more than ever

MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL   |  August 15, 2018 by Christian Schneider

For any incoming college freshman, stumbling onto campus the first day has to be a disorienting experience. There’s so much you don’t know, ranging from where to eat to where your classes are to why your roommate insists on only changing his socks every three days.

But there are certain things the university requires you to know. The University of Wisconsin-Madison requires three orientation programs for all new students; an alcohol awareness seminar, a violence prevention program, and a diversity-inclusion program.

Of course, “diversity” on campus rarely includes tolerance of conservative viewpoints. That is why, in addition to these three seminars, new students should be required to attend a program explaining both the First Amendment and the tolerance for viewpoint diversity.

Such training might help avoid situations like the one in 2016 when conservative controversialist Ben Shapiro appeared on campus, only to be surrounded by 18 activists yelling “Safety!” Across America, universities have been setting up so-called “free-speech zones” that merely serve to restrict speech, not enhance it.

Further, it should be mandatory for all students to take courses relating to civic education and the U.S. Constitution. According to a recent study, only 18% of American colleges and universities require their graduates to take a foundational course in U.S. history or U.S. government, and at UW-Madison, history majors are not required to take a single class on American History.

This de-emphasis of education in government and history has led to a collapse in general civic knowledge in America. According to a recent poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, nearly 40% of Americans could not name any of the rights protected under the First Amendment.

A 2016 study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that half of all college graduates couldn’t name the term length for either members of Congress or senators, and only slightly more than 20% could name James Madison as the primary author of the Constitution. Most preposterously, 10% of college graduates believed television jurist “Judge Judy” sat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

This corrosion of civic education is manifesting itself in the types of leaders Americans are choosing and in what citizens expect of those leaders once they take office. It is no wonder voters flock to a strongman promising only he can change America’s laws for the better; ignorance of the proper role of Congress and the separation of powers makes this possible.

The University of Wisconsin recognizes the need to make students more well-rounded by requiring them to take courses outside of their majors. That is why students must take three credits of ethnic studies in order to graduate. Such courses expose young people to experiences they might not get elsewhere.

But civic education should accompany these other mandatory courses. By the time they’ve graduated, all college students should have analyzed the text and history of the Constitution. They should have read the Federalist papers, Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” and other important foundational documents: It’s a matter of empowering our citizens by teaching them their rights and responsibilities.

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance,” said James Madison, “and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” We are failing to educate our students about American institutions and self-government. And this failure, if uncorrected, will lead to greater political ignorance, greater political polarization, and a greater disconnect between those with power and those without.

And as long as we fail to provide young people with a civics education, we are what we teach.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More