Thursday, April 15, 2010

Good Government Requires a Civic Minded Population

Recently I was a speaker at the Young Conservatives of Texas annual convention in Austin, Texas and, as I waited for my opportunity to present, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Rich Brake of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) discusse the status of America's civic education. Brake eloquently reminded the audience that our country has a republican form of government. That means that we must have a population that understands individual responsibility and is capable of making sure the government stays within the limits so clearly stated in the Constitution. We are not a nation that is ruled by the mob, but by the law. The people must hold those who govern accountable to that law. So how are the American people doing?

ISI, through its American Civil Literacy Program, produced a report entitled "Failing our Students, Failing America." It's purpose is to hold "colleges accountable for teaching America's history and institutions." The survey was of "some 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities. Students were asked 60 multiple-choice questions to measure their knowledge in four subject areas: America's history, government, international relations, and market economy." The finding of the report are very disturbing, including:

  • College seniors failed a basic test on America's history and institutions. According to the report, these students made an "F" on all four basic areas, with a score of 54.2 percent. Harvard seniors did best, but their score was only 69.6, which was a mere "D+."
  • Colleges actually slow down, and even stall, student learning about America. The report found that from K-12, the "average student gains 2.3 points per year in civic knowledge, almost twice the annual gain of the average college student." Worse still, some students actually lose civic knowledge as they go through school.
  • Ironically (considering the costs and other factors), America's most prestigious schools were the worse performers. In fact, colleges that perform well in popular rankings (such at US News & World Report) are actually quite poor at advancing civic knowledge. Seniors from four of the top 12 schools in US News had weaker scores on the test as they left school, compared to when they entered.
  • Not surprisingly, the study indicated that inadequate college curriculum contributes to failure. Obviously the number of civic oriented courses (and their quality) a student takes will have a bearing on how well they would perform on such a test. The average senior only takes four such courses while in college.
  • Finally the more people learn about government, the more active they will likely be as citizens. Simply put, those who know more are going to be more likely to vote and be involved in other civic activities.
The average score of these students was 53.2% and the simplicity of the questions these test takers failed on, is disturbing. For example the takers of this multiple choice test could not provide a simple chronology of the most important events in US history (what came first, the Constitution or the Cuban Missile Crisis?), the purpose of Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech, and they could not define the free enterprise system.

Parents are spending thousands of dollars helping their children to make a living and to make a life. They clearly deserve a refund from their colleges when it comes to the type of education these students are receiving to prepare for the responsibilities of protecting that quality of life.

Kevin Price is a syndicated columnist whose articles frequently appear at ChicagoSunTimes.com, Reuters.com, USAToday.com, and other national media. Kevin Price is also host of the Price of Business (M-F at 11 AM on CNN radio). Hear the show live and online at PriceofBusiness.com. Visit the archive of past shows here.

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