There is a crisis of civic education in America today. For the last 20 years, study after study has shown that most Americans lack a basic understanding of the country’s history and political institutions. America’s Knowledge Crisis: A Survey of Civic Literacy, shows that college-educated Americans do only slightly better than those without a four-year degree. This means that the crisis will not be solved by doing the obvious, sending more Americans to college. Rather, it will take leadership on the part of college presidents, governing boards, faculty curriculum committees, and state legislators to ensure that there is meaningful civic education on campus.
A few states or state university systems have taken legislative action already. Starting last year, all students entering Florida College System institutions or state universities must demonstrate competency in civic literacy. The statute specifies that the courses should be meaningful and foundational, emphasizing the U.S. Constitution, landmark Supreme Court cases, or the nature and origin of self-government.
The California State University System requires all its undergraduate students to take six credits in U.S. government or history. State law says students receive a “comprehensive study of American history and American government including the historical development of American institutions and ideals, the Constitution of the United States, and the operation of representative democratic government under that Constitution” at CSU institutions.
Nationwide, however, the overall state of civic education is grim. What Will They Learn?, a 2019 study of 1,123 colleges and universities across the U.S., found that only 18% of schools require students to take a foundational course in U.S. government or history. The State University of New York, for example, is the largest university system in the United States, but only one SUNY campus — Buffalo — requires all undergraduate students to take a foundational course in U.S. government or history. At other campuses, like the University at Albany, American history is an option, but not required, to fulfill the general education requirements.
Productive civic discourse starts with a shared historical context, facts that set boundaries for our arguments about policy and principle. Today, 15% of college graduates believe that Brett Kavanaugh is the current chief justice of the Supreme Court (and another 16% think it’s the late Antonin Scalia). More shocking yet, 51% could not correctly identify the term lengths for members of Congress—on a multiple choice question! When political arguments are divorced utterly from historical facts, it is hardly surprising that Americans drift toward emotional arguments and polarized extremes. Allowing college students to skip civics only exacerbates the problem.
In a letter to Samuel Knox, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The boys of the rising generation are to be the men of the next, and the sole guardians of the principles we deliver over to them.” By this, he meant that every generation is responsible for teaching the next generation America’s civic ideals and what it means to live up to them.
Renewing civic education today will require courageous institutional leadership, and, to be most effective, firm commitment and resource support at the state level. The cost of doing nothing is higher yet, evidenced by a deteriorating public discourse that raises questions about Americans’ ability to function effectively as deliberative and self-governing citizens.
Nathaniel Urban is the program manager for curricular improvement at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.