Friday, April 9, 2010


My friend Frank Minardi, commenting on a recent blog, bemoaned the fact that Americans know so little about their government.

His point was sharpened today as AOL News carried a story about the failure of our high schools, colleges and universities to teach basic facts about American history, government and economics.

For five years, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has been conducting tests to measure the civic literacy of college freshmen and seniors. The idea is to get some notion of what our institutions of higher education are doing to prepare the next generation of citizens to participate in democracy.

The results are appalling.

When fourteen thousand college freshmen took the 60 question, multiple choice test, only about half of the questions were answered correctly. Four years of living in college dorms, cheering at football games, drinking beer, changing majors, attending rock concerts, pulling all nighters, and regurgitating the opinions of liberal academics on final examinations produced a bare four percent expansion of their knowledge.

Even the prestigious Ivy League schools failed to score better than 69%.

Worse yet, some schools are graduating people who know less about their government when they graduate than they did when they entered college.

The bottom ten loser schools are expensive, exclusive and Eastern: Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Yale, Brown, Duke, St Johns, Princeton, Georgetown, University of Virginia (its founder, Thomas Jefferson,would roll over in his grave) and Rutgers.

The top ten schools which improved their students knowledge of civics by anywhere from eight to eleven percent were: Rhodes College in Tennessee, Colorado State, Eastern Connecticut, Calvin College in Michigan, Marian College in Wisconsin, Grove City College in Pennsylvania, Murray State in Kentucky, Concordia University in Nebraska, the University of Colorado, and St. Cloud University in Minnesota.

Which suggests to me that if you want your children to be the civic leaders of tomorrow, send them to a little known local college.

Googling “Civics for Dummies,” I turned up American Citizenship for Dummies, Politics for Dummies, U.S. Constitution for Dummies, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to American Government.

It is tragically true that in an age of communication overload, we need to find simplistic ways to teach people the fundamentals about our nation and its government.

Back in 1969, I taught a course in government at the University of Detroit. I began the classes by asking the students to write down the preamble to the Constitution of the United States. About half of the class could not get past “We the people.” Many of them went on to invent a paragraph of high sounding political rhetoric, but almost none turned in a reasonable facsimile of the real thing.

In my day, grammar school children memorized the Gettysburg Address and many other enduring components of our national heritage.

Sadly, the educational establishment, abetted by psychological drivel, has debunked memorization as a menial and demeaning form of learning. Armed with computers, calculators, and multi-tasking cell phones, kids don’t even have to memorize the multiplication tables any more. Much less the Gettysburg Address.

Ringing my hands over the state of the nation and the dim future on the horizon, I decided to give myself a shot of optimism. So I gave the Intercollegiate Studies Institute test to my fifteen year old grandson, Jimmy Hicks.

He scored 71 percent.

There is hope for America.


  1. Hi Tom

    Thanks for your blog. Always articulate, always interesting. Yet in this latest entry…

    I am surprised that you generalize with the cliché that the educational establishment, abetted by psychological drivel, has debunked memorization to the point that students don’t even have to know the multiplication tables any more. Also surprised at your characterization of college students as slackers who regurgitate silly stuff and then, I presume, graduate, unready for adult responsibilities. These generalizations fit well with sweeping characterizations implied by the use of text like…in my day we did this or that, which is much superior to what those fools do today.

    The students I deal with at ISU are, by and large, hard working young people of integrity and promise. They typically know their multiplication tables. They might not be able to give you the preamble from memory, but they know where to find it within thirty seconds or so. Lots of them carry a job or two to help them pay their expenses through college. While some of them will no doubt fail by anybody’s standards, many others will become national leaders in their chosen fields. They will run the power plants, build the cars and airplanes and computers, and provide the medical advances. Some may even reach the highest levels of intellectual endeavor and become constitutional scholars. (It is my hope that very few of them will run hedge funds, but, some probably will. In my day, we didn’t do that.)

    Do some of them drink beer, change majors and pull all nighters? Sure, they do, just as they did in my day and in your day.

    Looking forward to the next entry...maybe something easier like the banking system or maybe the trials and tribulations of our Church?

  2. I benefited greatly from a serious of Saturday morning TV commercials called Constitution Rock, which turned the essence of our system into a set of catchy jingles. Who can forget "I'm just a Bill, yes I'm only a Bill, and I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill." I have the tapes and my daughter will be watching them when she is a bit older. Of course, my daughter is a bit different than most kids, she knew who Jim Webb was when she was 2 years old and he was running for Senate (I was working on his campaign - you can thank me for the new Senate in 2006).

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  4. Hi All,
    First let me say,I'm a Cspan junkie and a student of Torah,or vice-versa,but I often refer to the sage advice I've read in Torah and apply that knowledge to many of the experiences we find our selves in to day such as,"train children in the way they should go and when they become old(mature) they will not depart from the teaching of their youth." My People are destroyed, due to their Lack of knowledge."Hosea.4:6. Yet few today are aware of how this advice is to be politically applied or what the knowledge mentioned is. Written In Stone, this Knowledge was to be everlasting throughout the generations for the Yet to be born to have access so their lives would be long and properous upon the Earth. Deuteronomy.5:22.
    There's a time, place and purpose for all things! What was the purpose of writing these statutes in stone, to be obeyed to the last Jot and Tittle? This what has been missed throughout; There was a Created Being with the mental capacity to unequivocally say,How Life was/is To Be with out the knowledge inscribed on the Tablets of Stone.