WEST LAFAYETTE – Faculty members assembled in the Purdue Memorial Union’s North Ballroom for two hours Friday morning seemed willing to concede that Purdue President Mitch Daniels probably has a point about civics and Americans’ apparent lack of knowledge on the subject.
And it might be time, as Daniels pleaded with faculty leaders in January, to do … well, something about it. And do it by the fall 2019 semester.
But do what? And was this an actual crisis on campus that warranted a make-or-break test to walk the Elliott Hall of Music stage at commencement?
Those questions were still wide open to interpretation Friday, nearly two months after Daniels made his request of faculty leaders to help him come up with a graduation requirement that could prove that a Purdue diploma came with a guarantee of at least a minimum level of civics competence.
The only firm conclusion was that by mid-April, the faculty-driven University Senate could deliver Daniels the outline of a civics-oriented graduation requirement. Short of that, faculty promised to let the president ask for a straight up-or-down vote on his baseline assumption that students should at least be able to pass the same test given to newly naturalized citizens.
Daniels wasn’t there Friday for a town hall-style discussion, organized by Natalie Carroll, University Senate chairwoman. But he circled back on the subject a day earlier, in his monthly email to the Purdue community.
In it, Daniels reiterated his mounting concerns, built on assorted reports that paint a portrait of Americans who don’t have a basic understanding of American history, politics and current events. (One example he offered: “Just this year, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation found that a majority of people in every state except Vermont would fail the U.S. citizenship test, with the percentage earning an ‘A’ grade in the single digits for all 50 states.”)
“My initial proposal to that group is that we simply hand each entering freshman the same 100-question manual given to immigrants reaching naturalization, with four years to pass a test abstracted from it,” Daniels wrote.
“There are numerous details to consider,” Daniels wrote. “Should this be required of all our students, including international students? What level of knowledge should we require as a passing grade? … In short, as (the American Council of Trustees and Alumni) succinctly puts it: ‘It is dishonest for a college or university to pretend that its students do not need further coursework in a subject so crucial to the future of this nation.’”
The faculty discussion Friday, meant to supplement an ongoing survey of faculty and students, picked on the details from there.
They wondered: Would a de facto citizenship test prove Purdue students had a basic grasp on civics facts – or prove that that they could at least study for a test? Or, if Purdue was going to make the statement faculty thought Daniels was trying to make, did the West Lafayette campus need to do something more to promote substantial civic engagement – even providing the “further coursework” the American Council of Trustees and Alumni seemed to call for?
Or, some faculty asked, would Purdue simply be going through the motions in the name of doing, well, something?
“It was a proposal to get us thinking,” Carroll said of Daniels’ testing idea. “There’s been a lot of things flying around our committees. Would it be a test? Would it be some sort of workshop? Would it be a seminar? There’s all kinds of things. I think we want to focus on: Do we feel that it’s Purdue’s job to have undergraduates know more about civic engagement?”
Phillip VanFossen is a social studies education professor and director of the Ackerman Center for Democratic Citizenship at Purdue. He hosts a game show-styled event each year for Constitution Day, testing what students and campus and local celebrities know about constitutional rights.
VanFossen said the National Assessment of Education Progress – often called the “Nation’s Report Card” and congressionally mandated – has been tracking civics testing since 1998, with results he said “indicate a concerning lack of knowledge from our high school students.”
But drill into the data, VanFossen said, and the test shows that students with a parent who had a college degree – “A rough proxy for ‘going to college,’” he said. “Thus, more like Purdue students” – scored significantly better.
“Is it a real problem here?” VanFossen asked after Friday’s forum. “Maybe, and based on my experience, I think it probably is true. But we don’t really know. We’re just guessing.”
His point: Once Purdue knows how civically illiterate Purdue students are, the university can be strategic about designing curriculum designed to address those shortcomings.
“If this is going to be a graduation requirement,” VanFossen said, “we really shouldn’t be in a rush.”
Daniels would need faculty approval to add a graduation requirement. Today, graduation requirements for the roughly 6,000 undergraduates who get Purdue diplomas each year include a minimum of 120 credits, a 2.0 grade point average, the course work required by Purdue’s core curriculum and at least 32 credits in upper level courses, according to Frank Dooley, senior vice provost for teaching and learning.
Part of Purdue’s core curriculum includes a “human cultures” requirement, which directs students to take at least one course in the humanities and another in behavioral and social sciences. Among the skills students are supposed to come away with, said Jon Neal, an entomology professor and part of the University Curriculum Council, is an ability to “discuss history and the basic principles and operation of government with a view to being a responsible citizen.”
So, if it’s a test, what kind? For naturalization purposes, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services pulls 10 questions from a list of 100 and asks them face-to-face, with a set list of possible correct answers. A passing grade is six of 10 correct.
“There’s a huge range in difficulty,” said April Ginther, an English professor who specializes in language testing and assessment. She cited a Michigan State study about the reliability of the tests, based, in part, on the questions chosen by the person giving the test. That, she said, would need to be taken in account when adapting the naturalization test for broad use on campus.
Some questions are straight forward and fairly obvious: “What is the name of the president of the United States now?” “Why does the flag have 50 stars?” “When do we celebrate Independence Day?”
Ginther pointed to a few that weren’t as obvious, including: “What is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for?” (Her response – Franklin’s experiments with electricity – was not on a list that included: U.S. diplomat, oldest member of the Constitutional Convention, first postmaster general of the United States, writer of “Poor Richard’s Almanac” and “started the first free libraries.”)
When should a civics test be given? Daniels has said it could be as simple as giving incoming freshmen the naturalization test questions at Boiler Gold Rush, Purdue’s weeklong orientation program each August, with the option to take a test any time before graduation.
Olivia Keller, Purdue Student Government vice president, said Boiler Gold Rush already was so crammed with information about campus life and expectations that students came out with their heads swimming as it was before the first day of classes. She said any civics graduation requirement – especially one that might include additional course work – should take into account that students already have a lot on their plates if they want to graduate in four years and still take time to get involved in campus activities.
“For some students … it may be another check in the box – something else I have to do,” Keller said.
How many times would a student be allowed to take the pass-fail test? Ginther said the tests might not prove much if students could go back and take over and over until they passed.
“Frank, are you actually going to make people not graduate if they don’t pass the test?” Ginther asked Dooley, whose office handles requested waivers of for unmet graduation requirements.
Dooley, hearing laughter in the ballroom, smiled, put his hands up and pushed away from the microphone.
“OK, he doesn’t want to go there,” Gunther said.
Would something other than a test be better? “The other question is, What are we going to do to correct the problem, assuming we recognize it as a problem?” asked Robert X. Browning, a political science professor and director of the C-SPAN Archives at Purdue.
Browning said the C-SPAN Center for Scholarship and Engagement, a program that grew out of C-SPAN founder and Purdue grad Brian Lamb’s ties to the university, was prepared to create a short course using C-SPAN video stored and managed on the West Lafayette campus. It wouldn’t be a credit course but could be available as an elective of some sort.
“Some of these questions are so simple, like, Who is the vice president of the United States?” Browning said. “It’s amazing the number of people who can’t say that. … But people are failing that on these exams. So, we think this would go a long way on the education component.”
Tara Johnson, an English professor, added: “What are the long-term effects? They can cram for test. They can know those facts. They can know 1787. They can know 27,” she said, referencing two answers on the citizenship test (the year the Constitution was written and the number constitutional amendments). “And then they can forget it the next day when they’ve passed it.”
And what’s next? Gerald Shively, an agricultural economics professor, is head of the University Senate’s steering committee, which has the power to put things on the faculty body’s agenda. He said Friday that Daniels and a handful of Purdue trustees have made it clear that they’d like to see some sort of civics requirement added – and that they’d like to see it, as Daniels told the University Senate in January – sooner rather than later. Two University Senate committees are hashing out details now, Shively said.
Shively said he promised Daniels that if the faculty couldn’t come up with a plan by its April 15 meeting – “Whatever that might look like,” he said – Daniels, as a member of the University Senate, would be guaranteed a discussion of his own proposal.
“Whether President Daniels wants to do that, I’m not sure,” Shively said after Friday’s town hall. “He might get a sense of what faculty is thinking by then and decide not to put something out there.”
Bottom line: Faculty are working on the questions. But it might be up to Daniels to force the issue if he’s looking to do, well, something to make put Purdue’s stamp on what he calls a national problem.