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.