| Civic Literacy

ACTA Testimony to the South Dakota Senate Education Committee in support of House Bill 1213

February 29, 2024 by Nick Down

Twenty-three years ago, ACTA brought attention to the problem of civic illiteracy in a published report titled, Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century. Among many alarming datapoints, the survey found that only 22% of the college seniors were able to identify “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” as a line from the Gettysburg Address — arguably one of the three most important documents underlying the American system of government. Since then, ACTA has watched with alarm the continuing decline of knowledge of American civic institutions and the history of their development. In a report issued in 2016 entitled, A Crisis in Civic Education, ACTA found that only 21% of respondents could identify James Madison as the Father of the Constitution. More than 60% thought the answer was Thomas Jefferson, despite the fact that Jefferson, as U.S. ambassador to France, was not present during the Constitutional Convention. And nearly 10% of college graduates marked that Judith Sheindlin— “Judge Judy”—was on the Supreme Court!

We are not alone in monitoring this trend. The issues that HB 1213 seeks to remedy are a matter of bipartisan concern, and we enthusiastically support the proposed legislation because it provides a commonsense solution to this problem.

Few have articulated the imperative better than President John F. Kennedy:

“There is little that is more important for an American citizen to know than the history and traditions of his country. Without such knowledge, he stands uncertain and defenseless before the world, knowing neither where he has come from nor where he is going. With such knowledge, he is no longer alone but draws a strength far greater than his own from the cumulative experience of the past and a cumulative vision of the future.”

Those words went unheeded. In a 1987 survey, about half of the American citizens polled thought that the phrase, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” came from the U.S. Constitution. Regardless of what one thinks of that sentiment, it would improve political discourse to identify it correctly as classic Karl Marx. Flash forward 34 years, a 2021 Newsweek poll revealed that 24% of college students had a positive view of capitalism while 32% favored socialism. Given these survey results, it is no wonder that 3% of the 1,100 schools ACTA surveys through our What Will They Learn?® project require a foundational economics course and only 18% require a foundational course in American history.

To further illustrate the necessity of House Bill 1213, I would like to point out that Black Hills State University does not require a foundational course in U.S. government or history.

In March 2022, a Quinnipiac University poll asked adults across America if they would stay and fight if Russia invaded our borders. Only 45% of men between the ages of 18 and 34 said they would stand and fight, instead of leaving the country. President Kennedy was right: “defenseless before the world.” Let us be clear: ignorance and contempt for our freedoms and civic institutions go hand in hand. Those who do not understand the value of freedom, or the price paid to guard it will not have the will to foster and defend it. 

Derek Bok, who served as Harvard’s 25th president, diagnosed the problem in a 2020 interview:

“It is widely agreed that an informed and engaged citizenry is important, many would say essential, in order for democracy to flourish or even survive. There is also abundant evidence from national assessments of civic knowledge and from studies of the attitudes and behavior of college-age adults that large numbers of students are neither very knowledgeable nor convinced that government and politics are worth much of their time and attention.”

We have not seen remedies coming from existing university departments. Thus, it falls to legislators and governors to bring new resources and new voices to campus. Not infrequently, new institutes and centers pride themselves on providing the intellectual diversity that is so often lacking on the contemporary campus. In 2021, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee called for an institute committed to “informed patriotism.” The website for the nascent center at University of Tennessee tells us: “Lawmakers from both parties spoke in favor of the Institute’s mission to strengthen civic education and participation while reviving thoughtfulness, civility and respect for opposing viewpoints in national discourse.” The University of Florida’s Hamilton Center, “will highlight the value of debate and disagreement based on a core commitment to the search for truth and will resist the current push to ‘deplatform,’ ‘cancel,’ or professionally destroy those with whom we may disagree.” Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership’s website reads: “The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership is dedicated to fostering a culture of intellectual diversity to facilitate the open and free contest of ideas that are a foundation to a healthy constitutional democracy.”

One unique, and in our view necessary, characteristic of newly established centers is the ability for the center to be overseen by an independent, intellectually diverse board of advisors chosen from the nation’s leading scholars of American history and government. ACTA recommends that statutory language, moreover, should specify that the new center will have independent hiring authority, to ensure that it not merely replicate the focus of departments already existing at Black Hills State University. This feature, as created by similar legislation in Ohio (2023) and Tennessee (2022), would strengthen HB 1213 by ensuring that the hiring of center leadership and faculty reflects the intellectual diversity that is increasingly disappearing at institutions of higher education across the country. 

I would like to leave you with a quote from former President George W. Bush:

“Our history is not a story of perfection. It’s a story of imperfect people working toward great ideals. This flawed nation is also a really good nation, and the principles we hold are the hope of all mankind. When children are given the real history of America, they will also learn to love America. Our Founders believed the study of history and citizenship should be at the core of every American’s education.”

Members of the committee, I need hardly rehearse the devastating reports of de-platformings and shout-downs from Yale to Stanford that have received national attention, just in the last 12 months. Nor do I need to repeat the disheartening statistics of civic illiteracy mentioned earlier in my testimony. We have before us a strong remedy. Representative Scott Odenbach has done a great service in crafting HB 1213, and ACTA enthusiastically supports this legislation.


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.

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