Dorm Daze

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This column was written by Whitney Blake.
It's no secret that the American electorate is generally uninformed when it comes to politics — only 61 percent can identify the vice president. And it's also not a big surprise that students are no exception — a 2000 study discovered that 99 and 98 percent of college seniors could identify Beavis and Butthead and Snoop Dogg, respectively, but only 26 percent could name (from a list of four choices) the purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation, and only 23 percent the "Father of the Constitution."

What's more of a mystery is the impact of higher education — which can deplete as much as $200,000 per pupil from the family budget — on students' actual growth of knowledge in the fundamental area of civics education. That is, up until now. Last Wednesday, survey results unveiled at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. revealed that students learned little, if anything, about American history, government, or economics over the course of their four years in college. This may come as a shock to some, especially those who just wrote out that fall tuition check.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing college students with "a better understanding of the values and institutions that sustain a free and virtuous society," teamed up with the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy (formerly the Roper Institute), which conducted a study of 14,094 freshmen and seniors from 50 colleges over the past year. Half of the colleges were chosen randomly; half for various characteristics such as prestige based on US News & World Report rankings, high selectivity, religious affiliation, and percentage of graduates in civic leadership positions.

Unfortunately, among today's generation, the term "civics education" is akin to Rosie the Riveter or gasoline rations, something relegated to our parents' and grandparents' generation. On average, seniors only scored 1.5 percent higher than freshmen, with an average grade of 53.2 percent. A surprising number of students, including those at the top Ivies, knew less when they graduated. For example, 46.2 percent of freshmen knew that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was an "alliance to resist Soviet expansion", compared with only 44.7 percent of seniors. While 55.1 percent of freshmen knew that "The Federalist Papers" argued for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, only 49.4 percent of seniors were aware of this.

Even more jarring is the fact that some of the best schools in the country — Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, MIT, Duke, Georgetown, John Hopkins, Stanford, Williams, the University of Chicago — had a lower percentage of knowledge gained than relatively obscure colleges like Rhodes, Colorado State, Calvin, University of New Mexico, University of Mobile, Youngstown State, and Lynchburg. Top state schools including the University of Michigan, the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Virginia placed in the bottom half of the list. In fact, at 12 of the 16 prestigious schools listed, students demonstrated a negative learning performance — entering freshmen knew more than exiting seniors.

According to Gary Scott, the Senior Research Fellow at ISI's civic literacy program, a test comprised of 60 multiple-choice questions about economics, American history, American government, and major world events was formulated by asking eight scholars from around the country to write questions based on the top 50 themes from the courses they taught in politics, history, and economics. The 400 questions were then culled down to a list of 60, with special care taken to ensure they were not biased in any way. Topics included the nation's founding documents, the structure of American government, historic conflicts, major Supreme Court cases like Marbury, Brown, and Roe, and social movements such as women's suffrage. Six of the questions were taken from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test administered to high school seniors, and students did even worse on these than the rest of the test.

The study also found that students at schools with a strong core curriculum and required civics courses scored higher overall, and were also more involved citizens; they vote, volunteer with community service activities, and work on political campaigns at a higher rate.

The accuracy of the study was questioned at the press conference, and the responses provided to each probing question were generally convincing. The student bodies at large research universities are on the whole much more diverse in terms of their majors, areas of academic interest, and their national origin, not to mention that the course selection to fulfill basic requirements is much broader, than at a smaller liberal arts college such as Rhodes or Grove City, which ranked first and fourth, respectively.

Five percent of those surveyed were foreign nationals, and students from all majors were included in the sample, such as those possibly majoring in engineering, nursing, architecture, or the hard sciences, where requirements for civics courses are scant. Is an astrophysics student from India studying at MIT supposed to know that Social Security takes the largest chunk out of the U.S. federal budget (an actual test question)? Rear Admiral Michael Ratliff, executive director of the literacy program, countered that "engineers will be citizens too." It was also noted that these factors were controlled for.

The argument that students at more elite schools start off with more knowledge than the average student, and therefore won't show as much improvement, was raised, and this was overwhelmingly proven true by the statistics. Freshmen at 14 of the 16 aforementioned elite schools scored in the 60s, with only two of the remaining thirty-five schools scoring in this range and ten scoring in the 20s and 30s. Of the 30 non-elite schools that saw an increase in scores among seniors, only five of them reached the 60 percent mark, while 10 of the 14 elite schools still remained above 60 percent. Nevertheless, a mark in the 60s is nothing to brag about, and, as Ratliff stated, "To whom much is given, much should be expected."

Since this is the first study of its kind, there's no way to definitively state that these findings represent a decline in the quality of civic education over the past few decades. However, as Professor Christopher Barnes, the director of project development at the University of Connecticut, pointed out, since higher participation is linked with higher levels of civic knowledge, research by individuals such as Robert Putnam indicating a higher level of civic participation several decades ago could lead one to conclude that there has been a decrease in civic knowledge as well.

For the next step, UConn's department is currently surveying students and plans to release data annually and publish their findings in academic journals. Former Deputy Education Secretary Eugene Hickok, who is a member of ISI's National Civic Literacy board, called for colleges to reevaluate the content of their civics courses and their curriculum requirements and for parents, students, and university boards to hold the institutions accountable, though he wasn't advocating a federally mandated assessment.

While they're at it, perhaps they ought to throw in extra math courses too: A study released in January by the American Institutes for Research found that more than half of college students couldn't balance a checkbook or calculate a restaurant tip. The call for an improvement in civic education shouldn't eclipse the reality of the equally dismal state of hard science knowledge. It's high time colleges at all levels make sure students know the fundamentals — and retain them throughout their college careers. Still, in a day and age where multicultural, anti-Western, and diversity-sensitive courses rule the roost at one of the last thriving havens for liberalism, it shouldn't be a tremendous revelation that the students who have to endure four years of exposure to this emerge none the more enlightened of the founding, heritage, and rich history of our great nation.


Whitney Blake is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard, where she is currently completing a yearlong fellowship sponsored by the Collegiate Network, which is administered by the ISI. Both are separately incorporated non-profits.
By Whitney Blake
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  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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