“Whenever the people are well-informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789, “they can be trusted with their own government.” No doubt the Founding Fathers’ faith in self-government would be challenged today with the reality of how little Americans know about their heritage.
In anticipation of the Fourth of July, “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno took his “Jaywalking” camera crew to the streets to ask people questions about the number of original colonies, who made the first American flag, and the title of the National Anthem, among others. It is hardly surprising that almost all of the half dozen people he interviewed ranging from a college professor to a teenage boy were unable to answer the questions correctly. Two years ago, the same roving game of trivial pursuit produced a National Football League-bound student from UCLA who declared Ben Franklin the first president of the United States.
Week after week, the segment entertains viewers with such grand demonstrations of ignorance as people willingly reveal on national television just how little they know.
The sketches are at once entertaining and depressing. Sadly they reveal significant deficiencies in civic education.
For its recent and aptly titled report, The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute asked students at 50 of the nation’s institutions of higher education about history, government, foreign affairs, and the economy. Among them were three Texas colleges and universities: Baylor University, West Texas A&M, and the University of Texas at Austin. The results suggest no shortage of candidates for Mr. Leno’s sidewalk shtick.
After three years of undergraduate coursework, seniors scored an average of 53.2 percent, while 22 of the 50 schools have average scores below 50 percent. More than half could not identify the correct century when the first colony of Jamestown was established. Twenty-eight percent believed that Gettysburg was the battle that brought the Revolutionary War to an end.
Fewer than half of the students knew that it was the Declaration of Independence that so boldly declared “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Shockingly, in some cases students knew less at the end of their college years than when they first set foot on campus. But these scores are hardly an indictment on colleges and universities alone. The average improvement during one’s undergraduate years was a mere 1.5 points (almost three points for Texas), highlighting failures in civic education in K-12 days as well.
The report concludes that “students don’t learn what colleges don’t teach,” arguing that student knowledge will improve when schools require students to take more courses in American history and economics. The same can be said for all of education whether in middle and high school classrooms or on college campuses.
Ultimately those who care deeply about the future of this country-moreover the future of liberty and freedom-know that civic virtue is essential to the system of self-government we enjoy today.
With the fanfare of Independence Day just passed, it is appropriate that we do more than pay tribute to our nation. Indeed, we might wonder whether students failing at civics also fails our country, and how well we are preparing future generations to lead this country in the tradition of its founders.
Brooke Leslie Rollins is President of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin. To see how Texas college students performed on the ISI survey, read “Texas Undergraduates Fail at Civics” available on the Foundation’s website.