In the first recorded statement of his first political campaign, Abraham Lincoln, age 23, said that he viewed education "as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in" and that education requires that a person "be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions." So, for Lincoln, Americans' knowledge of our history, to which we can safely add knowledge of our institutions, are inseparable from the preservation of free government. One is reminded of this by the report on the state of civics knowledge and understanding among American college students published recently by researchers from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy. The researchers assess student knowledge in the areas of American history, American government, America and the world or foreign affairs, and the economy by way of a carefully drawn sixty-item questionnaire administered to 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities across the country. They report that student performance was, in the only word that fits, abysmal. Consciously or not, therefore, the report echoes Lincoln by concluding with a warning that unless "we take corrective action, [our results] portend a coming crisis in American citizenship."
A few selective examples offer a taste of the kinds of mistakes our most experienced students, the seniors, made on the exam. Less than half, 47.9% to be exact, could identify the line "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" as coming from the Declaration of Independence. And if so few did not know what started the Revolution, it is hardly surprising that more than half of them did not know that the Battle of Yorktown brought it to an end: 28% thought the correct answer to the question was the Battle of Gettysburg. The list of such errors could go on and on. Suffice it to say that the average senior only got half the answers correct on a basic American civic literacy exam. As disheartening, freshmen, who one hoped might not have yet forgotten their high school lessons, did even worse.
One cannot reach for comfort here to the thought that our best and brightest, our coming elites, are not the poorly performing the report identifies. As far as civics and education for citizenship are concerned, prestigious schools and performance are not aligned. Indeed, the report states that "an Ivy League education contributes nothing to a student's civic learning" and places relatively unfamiliar institutions at the head of their rankings of good educators on civics, e.g., Rhodes College, Calvin College, Grove City College.
There are some fairly obvious reasons for the disjunction between institutional prestige and education for citizenship. It is not that our highest status schools are against an educated citizenry. In part, rather, it is that they see their mission as somehow to produce theorists who can break the bonds of the parochialism they identify with citizenship. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, Professor Terry Moe, chairman of the Stanford political science department, suggests that Stanford's rank of 31 among the 50 colleges listed is in part the result of Stanford focusing "more on teaching theory and critical-thinking skills than facts. The teaching of facts and historical dates is considered 'old fashioned' in academe." Moe goes on to say that he himself agrees that there is a "basic knowledge that students should learn" and that although "universities don't think that way…my view is that they should." This is intriguing given that Moe's own department seems to be part of the problem. An undergraduate political science major must accumulate 70 political science units at Stanford, but the only specific course requirement is a 5-unit methods course. A student may, of course, take American politics courses, but there is no difficulty in escaping the department without encountering the dangers of such exposure. The same is true, we should add, at most of our other high prestige institutions. Princeton, Harvard, and Yale rank 1-3 on the most recent "U.S. News and World Report" list of America's best colleges. At Princeton, like Stanford, the only specific prerequisite for a politics major is a course in analysis. After that, there are opportunities to take American politics but no requirement. Harvard breaks the model, but just a bit. There, a government major must take one course in American government of the 12 course minimum for the major. Yale reverts to the model, with no specific course requirements. The emphasis on theory being what it is in today's political science, one wonders, of course, about the content of the American politics courses that are offered to students at these institutions. The reader is advised to take a look sometime on what passes for American politics in the American Political Science Review.
There is another less explicit, and, perhaps, less palatable, reason for some of our institutions' failures to provide what an educated citizenry might require as regards things American. That has to do with a certain disdain one encounters at these places when it comes to what most of us consider the basics of American civics lessons. The University of California, Berkeley ranked next to last, 49th, in the survey; Johns Hopkins was last. Prof. David Hollinger, the chairman of Berkeley's history department, after what seems like an obligatory dig at the survey itselfStanford's Moe did the sametold the Chronicle he did not "doubt that Americans would be better off knowing more history than they do," and, on that score, added that "I do not doubt that Berkeley would be wise to consider requiring more history than it does." Again, however, one wonders, in this case about whether Hollinger is being at least somewhat disingenuous here.
Beyond a course in premodern history, Hollinger's own department requires no specific courses and students can graduate without any American history, although there are an abundance of American history courses if they choose to take one. But this is where things get a bit messy as regards our civics survey. A history major must take at least two lower division courses from a large menu. This fall there are 15 courses from which to choose. Of these, two are in American history. The first is the standard American history to the end of the Civil War, that is, America from the first colonization to 1865. According to the course description, there are two themes. First, there is learning about the origins of the "groups" we call European-Americans, Native-Americans, and African-Americans and how their "cultures" were created. Second, students will learn how political institutions emerged. This, we learn, will require "assessing" what "'democracy' actually meant", among other things, in "the context of an economy that depended on slave labor and violent land acquisition." The other course, a seminar limited to fifteen students, examines U.S. history from 1920-1945 "Through Its Movies." Without going into detail, one wonders how much help either of the courses will provide for scoring well on a basic American civic literacy exam.
It is hard not to conclude, then, that America's "cutting edge" academic institutions fail in a number of ways Lincoln's test of education. And our student'smy own institution is not exempt hereknow it. One of my more old fashioned colleagues, who has always been a popular teacher, reports that he never got better evaluations than in the most recent term. One particular evaluation, he thought, characterized them all. "The class was great," the student said, "because we actually learned something about the history of the presidency."