Politics & Policy

Don’t Know Much About History

Our civic-illiteracy problem.

On September 18 the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) will release its second study on civic literacy in higher education. The study follows ISI’s landmark report, The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions, which was released in September 2006.

This year’s study, as last year’s, was based on the results of a multiple-choice test given to some 14,000 randomly chosen freshmen and seniors on 50 college and university campuses. The students were asked 60 multiple-choice questions about America’s history, government, free-market economics, and foreign relations. In the 2006 report, the average score for seniors was 53.2 percent correct. The average score for freshmen was 51.7 percent correct. For the first time, statistical evidence exists that shows that students gain very little knowledge while in college about America’s history and founding principles.

ISI ranked the 50 colleges in the study by the value they added to students’ knowledge of the subjects mentioned above. Rhodes College in Tennessee was ranked number one, followed by Colorado State University, Calvin College, Grove City College in Pennsylvania, and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Additional findings can be found in ISI’s report

One of the more startling aspects of the study is the poor showing from students at some of our nation’s elite colleges. Prestigious schools such as Georgetown, Yale, Duke, Brown, Cornell, and Johns Hopkins landed in the bottom ten on the basis of how much their students learned about America’s history and institutions. Sixteen of the fifty colleges in the ISI survey, including many icons of higher education, graduate seniors who know less than freshmen about their country’s institutions. This shocking phenomenon we describe as negative learning. Considering that a university education can cost almost $200,000 and an undergraduate, on average, leaves campus nearly $20,000 in debt, students and parents are entitled to more.

What can be done? First, key higher-education decision makers — state legislators, trustees, alumni, faculty, donors, parents, and students — must undertake a concerted reform effort concerning the teaching of America’s history and institutions. Colleges should assess the effectiveness of teaching in the subjects of U.S. history, political science, and economics, and they should make their assessment available to the public. Colleges should want to know how well they are teaching, but few compare freshmen to seniors to determine the curriculum’s effectiveness.

Also, colleges should increase the number and quality of required history, political science, and economics courses. The ISI study demonstrates, predictably, that students who take more courses in these subject areas learn more about America’s heritage and institutions. One way to improve instruction is to develop academic centers of excellence on campuses to revitalize the teaching American history, political science, and economics. ISI is doing this through its Jack Miller Center for the Teaching of America’s Founding Principles. Four centers are active now and by the end of this year eleven more centers will be up and running on campuses across the country.

Michael Deshaies is the communications director at the Jack Miller Center for the Teaching of America’s Founding Principles at ISI.

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