A Crisis in Civic Education?

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a conservative group that has advocated increased activism by college and university trustees and a “return” to “traditional” curricula in Western Civilization and American military, constitutional, and diplomatic history (let’s put aside for now that, given the recent behavior of most trustee boards, these two goals may dramatically conflict), has released a new report, A Crisis in Civic Education, which argues on the basis of a survey conducted in late August that “our schools—and especially our colleges and universities—have done a poor job of ensuring the civic literacy on which our nation depends.”

According to ACTA, “a majority of the four-year college graduates answering a multiple-choice survey were unable to identify the method for amending the Constitution or the process for presidential impeachment. Nearly half failed to identify the correct term lengths for the houses of Congress.”  And in what undoubtedly will be the report’s most trumpeted revelation, “Ten percent [actually 9.6%] thought that Judith Sheindlin—’Judge Judy’—is on the Supreme Court.”

But are the study’s “findings” as alarming and reliable as ACTA suggests?  A reading of the online version of the report suggests perhaps not.  The report does not include any detailed or even meaningful discussion of statistical methodology except a statement in an appendix that the findings are “based on 1,000 interviews of adults nationwide, ages 18+. Interviews were conducted between August 28, 2015 and August 30, 2015 through GfK’s OmniWeb KnowledgePanel—a representative, probability based online panel that covers 97% of the American public. The sample was weighted by age, sex, education, race, household income, metro/non-metro status, internet status, and geographic region.”

The report does not include breakdowns by any of these criteria, but it does include a comparison of responses to the questions — there were just twelve, or at least that is how many are presented in an appendix — from four-year college graduates and from the total group of respondents.  In all of these questions college graduates scored significantly higher than the total group.  And less than a majority of the college graduates didn’t know the correct answer to just two questions.  Just 28.4% of college graduates correctly identified James Madison as the “father of the Constitution;” 59.2% thought it was Thomas Jefferson.  And just 41.6% of college graduates correctly knew that a Constitutional amendment must be ratified by 3/4 of the state legislatures.

But are these two questions really so critical to contemporary civic knowledge?  I seriously doubt it.  But the findings are undermined even further when we consider sample size.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28.8% of the American population over age 25 possesses a bachelor’s degree or higher.  And, of course, many of those between 18 and 25 don’t have a degree for the simple reason that they have yet to finish their education.  Still, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the percentage for those over 18 is basically similar.  If that is the case, then of the thousand people surveyed about 288 would be college graduates.  And that means that ACTA is sounding the alarm about their Judge Judy question on the basis of responses from approximately 28 individuals!  In fact, in that question, according to the report, 61.6% of college graduates responding correctly answered that Elena Kagan is a member of the Supreme Court.  By contrast, 44% of all respondents knew that fact.  (One also cannot dismiss the possibility that some people answered Judge Judy as a joke, reflecting a perhaps appropriately cynical attitude toward the survey.)

While the report does not include a breakdown by demographic factors, its text does claim that “98.2% of college graduates over the age of 65 knew that the president cannot establish taxes—but only 73.8% of college graduates aged 25–34 answered correctly.”  On such a basis the report suggests that the findings may “understate” the problems with recent graduates, but it also might suggest another obvious conclusion: college graduates, like other Americans, continue to absorb and deepen civic knowledge as they age, on the basis of both informal and formal continuing education and life experience.

While ACTA is calling attention to ridiculous factoids like their Judge Judy finding, most of the report doesn’t even discuss the survey, which seems more an excuse to ride a time-worn hobby horse than a serious study.  The report describes findings from previous surveys by ACTA and others that also demonstrate a supposedly shocking lack of civic knowledge.  But such claims are nothing new.  A quick Google search of the term “civic education” reveals dozens of often self-referential calls for improvement of the sort ACTA makes.  Indeed, one could without much difficulty go back more than a century to find study after study in each decade that allegedly reveal how shockingly little Americans, including high school and later college graduates, know about their own past and the functioning of their government.  For just one example, in 1908 a committee of the American Political Science Association asked, “Is it not a curious fact that though our schools are largely instituted, supported and operated by the government, yet the study of American government in the schools and colleges is the last subject to receive adequate attention?”  Yet the nation somehow survived.

To be sure, as an historian I welcome ACTA’s endorsement of more requirements in U.S. history.  But I’m not naive enough to think that this would be a meaningful solution to a “problem” that may not be nearly as pressing as they claim.  Moreover, it is not just history and government that ACTA wants everyone to study, but a particular approach to these subjects and to their “objective” assessment.  In a section of the report entitled “A Proliferation of Non-Solutions” ACTA excoriates studies on civic education by the U.S. Department of Education and the Lumina Foundation.  They find much of the first to be “little more than gibberish,” and criticize the latter for its failure “to provide any clue as to the actual substance of effective civic education or to provide objective metrics for ensuring students have mastered the basic principles of American civics.”

They conclude:

The history of America cannot be known apart from the history of the Constitution, with all of the debates and court cases that form its ongoing history. Moreover, our freedom was won and tested on the battlefield and in our relations with other nations. But the course catalogs and faculty staffing of so many history departments, including the most prestigious, show that too many colleges and universities neglect these key areas within American history—military, diplomatic, and constitutional history. These core topics are dismissed as part of an old-fashioned “hegemonic” view of history, to be replaced by a new focus on race, class, and gender. As Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Gordon Wood sadly observed, “Academic historians are not much interested in constitutional history these days. Historians who write on America’s constitutional past are a vanishing breed.”

Of course, whether or not historians write about the constitutional past is largely irrelevant, given that most required or lower-division survey courses in U.S. history are taught by faculty on contingent contracts usually with neither reward nor adequate time to write much about anything!

So what does ACTA recommend?  They urge that “every college and university should require at least one course in the history of America, the workings of its free institutions, and the core documents that illuminate our principles of government.”  Moreover,

Colleges and universities should assess their own programs’ effectiveness by using objective tests to measure students’ knowledge when they enter and when they graduate. . . . While respecting shared governance and the academic freedom of faculty, college leaders must insist that programs for history majors include requirements for the advanced study of our nation’s history and the development of its institutions of government. They should also see to it that history departments achieve disciplinary breadth by hiring faculty with expertise in core fields of U.S. military, diplomatic, and constitutional history.

But one must wonder what sort of “objective tests” could possibly measure students’ civic knowledge?  Certainly not ones composed of the random multiple-choice questions that comprise the ACTA survey.  And what makes U.S. military, diplomatic, and constitutional history “core fields?”  Well, simply ACTA’s preferences.  And certainly even when history departments hire such specialists there is hardly any guarantee that they will be the ones to teach the kinds of required courses that ACTA proposes.

And then there is this:

Colleges and universities themselves should require all students to take a course in the history and government of the United States. Boards of trustees and administrators should not hesitate to be part of this crucial process to ensure the requirement is robust and effective. When public institutions fail to take this initiative for themselves, however, it falls to state legislators to establish guidelines that ensure the satisfactory civic education of students at taxpayer-funded institutions of higher education.  In establishing requirements for the study of American history and government in public higher education, state lawmakers must always respect academic freedom and avoid micromanaging course content. They must respect the expertise of faculty members. However, legislators should not shy away from explicitly prescribing collegiate study of key texts (such as the U.S. Constitution or the Federalist Papers) or major periods in American history.

Despite the ritualistic homage to academic freedom, this is little short of a call for a state-mandated college curriculum and an “official” history.

In short, while it may be shocking to some that 9.6% of a small group of college graduates aged 18 and over think Judge Judy sits on the Supreme Court, I am comforted by the likelihood that most graduates will recognize this revelation for what it is: meaningless and empty propaganda for a tired and dated political agenda.

3 thoughts on “A Crisis in Civic Education?

  1. It’s notable that the ACTA report tries to diminish the knowledge of college graduates by comparing their percentage correct with everyone in the survey (which includes the college grads). So, 61.6% of college grads got Elena Kagan right, compared to 37% of non-college grads (not 44% of the total). 9.6% of college grads (and 15% of non-grads) guessed “Judith Sheindlin” and probably none of them knew she is Judge Judy. Indeed, the most common guess (after Kagan) was a fictional male name. On every single question, college grads on average knew dramatically more than those without a college degree. It’s funny how ACTA says that legislators must respect the expertise of faculty, but says it’s perfectly fine to require study of the U.S. Constitution.

  2. A series of good observations about a non-academic organization proposing such a mandate. But as someone who works at an institution where the History program is on life support, I am very concerned about the gen ed program at my institution and many others that discriminate against any kind of history. Right now, we have an issue at the U. of Cincinnati, where film noir, a biology course on plagues, Introduction to Education, and “American Cinema Online” can all replace real history courses. It is easy to graduate from many universities in Ohio without ever taking a history course taught by a historian. I genuinely think this is a disservice to our students. They cannot be effective citizens if the past is a blank slate to them. And as a diplomatic historian of the Cold War, I do believe that if Americans knew more about the history of American foreign policy, they would not be such suckers for things like the Iraq war.

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