In late September, just as the present academic year was getting underway, The American Civic Literacy Program at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute released its report The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions. Its findings are based on extensive survey research, conducted on fifty American campuses, from large state schools to elite private universities to liberal arts colleges. Over 14,000 freshmen and seniors across the country completed a questionnaire comprised of sixty questions covering a wide range of topics in America’s history, founding ideas, political institutions, economic system, and place in the world.
The premise of the research is that basic knowledge of this kind is necessary for good citizenship—in order to keep the republic free and, I would add, brave. Supposing that this premise is right, patriotic friends of liberty will not be reassured by the results. Not satisfied with having alerted the public this once, the Program is currently collecting data for its second annual report.
So what did they discover? The report finds that the typical undergraduate’s familiarity with the history and institutions of the American regime improves negligibly during his or her college years, and it’s not due to a lack of room for improvement. What’s more, the price tag attached to any given degree turns out to be relatively irrelevant when it comes to these subjects. Students attending expensive schools do not generally score higher on the survey. In a fascinating finding, seniors at several schools with strong public reputations, such as Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, score noticeably worse than freshmen on the same campus—a phenomenon clinically labeled “negative learning.”
In presenting these results, ISI announces, “We think you will be as surprised as we were.” I have a hunch that they expect the American public to be more surprised than they were. Less surprising is the finding that students who take courses in the subjects being tested perform better, and colleges with required courses in these subjects tend to rank higher. They also report that those who possess greater knowledge in these subjects are more active citizens. (I wonder if the reverse holds. Could ISI get candidates, officeholders, magistrates and interest group professionals to take the survey?) ISI goes on to advocate finding ways to better assess “learning outcomes” and keep parents, students and policymakers informed of the results, so as to hold universities more accountable. The strong claim underlying these recommendations is that “prepar[ing] students to be informed, engaged participants in a democratic republic” properly belongs to “the mission” of undergraduate education.
I am not going to quarrel here with the methodology used by ISI in this report. I will assume that the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy conducted the survey on behalf of ISI in a manner consistent with quantitative social science at its best. I do have my reservations regarding standardized testing of teaching effectiveness, as these instruments offer a veneer of objective neutrality that may obscure the purposes of those who design them. I am wary of the humanities and social sciences overemphasizing social utility-based criteria to justify and promote themselves within the academy. Active citizenship will run into trouble when trying to compare itself against skills-based training as a quantifiable outcome of instrumental value. Once learning is reduced to numbers, those numbers will be translated into dollars—and ever since Book I of Aristotle’s Politics we have known what happens to freedom among a people who reduce politics to the standards and objectives of the economy.
I’m also not certain that American politics would be much enriched if today’s political science faculty took a more active role in promoting student activism. I see that the report recognizes that family background plays a significant role in shaping informed and active citizens, and I wonder if it isn’t too late to start making good citizens out of college students who have been habituated otherwise already. (There’s enough work to be done getting their reading habits and writing skills up to speed.) I imagine that a compelling case could be made for enhancing what ISI is calling “civic learning” in grade school and high school, although this begs the question of what would get taught and how.
In college, careerist pressures to specialize kick in, leading students to regard mandatory civics classes as a distraction from the serious business of studying thermo, orgo or bizorg. That said, what is taught in the universities affects what is practiced in all the professions. It affects how the law is interpreted, what journalists report, how religion and other elements of culture are communicated or criticized, what natural and social scientists want to research, not to mention how and what teachers teach in grade school and high school. It furthermore affects what college-educated parents teach their own children before sending them off to college. There is, therefore, a case to be made for improving civic learning in college. The challenge is to develop an awareness of and commitment to the duties and activities of citizens so as to encourage informed, responsible citizenship throughout adult life, as distinguished from the exploitative recruitment of overly excitable and impressionable youth.
Education cannot be extricated from the cultivation of character, the shaping of the imagination, and the development of the distinctively human capacity for deliberation. It is possible, however, whether through indifference or, more likely, well-meaning intentions, to implement pedagogical approaches that foster indulgent traits, leave thinking undisciplined, and nurture the unreflective life. Mere negligence in the teaching of political history alone, for instance, absent ideological distortions, generates discernable consequences with respect to the development of political beliefs, expectations, and behavior. It primarily bolsters all the qualities belonging to youth, such as dissatisfaction, immoderation, ingratitude, impatience and uncompromising self-righteousness. In combination with the technological mindset of the present age, itself essentially youthful, this negligence furthermore cements an exaggerated confidence that all the world’s problems can and should be resolved with haste and precision. To be sure, if political problems were all amenable to technical solutions, there would be no need for the habits of political participation.
Back on January 25, 1962, Lucie Van Pelt told Charlie Brown, “I’ll give them just twelve years to get things straightened out! I want everything settled by the time I’m eighteen! I want to live my adult life in a perfect world!” Since then, the essence of this juvenile outburst has become the core of what is now indirectly taught to students by not teaching them political history. We should of course be thankful that calls for revolution have lost much of their allure for the time being. The younger generation is instead taught, by default if not by design, to crave and anticipate a certain conception of rapid socio-political evolution. Knowledge of the past is needed to temper pride in the ways and opinions of the present and expectations regarding the promise of the future. Its neglect strengthens the perception that the traditions transmitted and institutions erected by previous generations are merely arbitrary constructs with no reasonable basis or justification. Their givenness is deemed inherently oppressive, an affront to our autonomy.
The neglect of political history reinforces the view that everything is available and ready to be transformed in accordance with the wisdom of the day. Neglecting the past is a surefire way to exacerbate the conviction that the present is exceptionally enlightened and morally sophisticated. Endless progress toward the perfect, in accordance with progressive sensibilities, is regarded as being delayed only by irrational and outmoded prejudices as well as plain old greed and malice—although these would evaporate if only things were set right.
A good part of the reason why the study of political history is neglected follows from a general perception that it offers us nothing from which to learn. This is in good part due to the supposition that the study of the human things is merely subjective and useless in comparison to the knowledge bestowed by the applied sciences or acquired through training for practical occupations—the precision, impersonal qualities and straightforward instrumentality of which immediately qualify them as real learning. Inquiries which might inform our decisions regarding what to do with all our skills and techniques are not regarded as a fit subject for education, ostensibly because we are all supposed to be equally free to choose those ends for ourselves, but largely because these purposes are largely unconsciously agreed upon and taken for granted.
There is one thing we can learn from history with scientific precision, however, and that is its undeniable imperfection. As a result, everyone can agree that history can be used to teach us how wrong everything used to be and why so many things remain so bad. Much historically-informed inquiry across the humanities and social sciences is presently illuminated by a spirit of condemnation, endeavoring to undermine and debunk everything once thought admirable, revealing that nothing was ever anywhere near good enough to warrant respect, and if any good is to be found it will be located in unconventional places, among the oppressed and forgotten, now nostalgically romanticized. Reverence for anything traditionally regarded as noble has become quaint or odious. Cynicism reigns, as everything high must be brought low, every idea deconstructed, every decision and action reduced to base interests and private agendas. Every heroic figure must be exposed as a hypocrite or reduced to a subject of tawdry gossip, it being far more fashionable to delegitimize their ideas and explain away their deeds with reference to biographical foibles and psychological speculations than to weigh their merits. The history of America is reduced in the main to a monolithic and monotone story of discrimination, greed and empire, a series of offenses against the weak and marginalized, effected by structures of power and modes of consciousness constructed to defy their amelioration.
It is a strange cynicism, however, because it yields a distinctly optimistic brand of nihilism. Sanctimonious finger-pointing and the discrediting of everything once found admirable belongs to the labor necessary for realizing a visionary future. To be sure, the academic industry’s demand for novelty is partly to blame. In order to be original, treatments of old subjects must be somehow transgressive, making transgressive scholarship ubiquitous, predictable and tiresome. Still, students who haven’t yet learned fundamental facts and conventional interpretations of things—let alone the complexities of the debates of their ancestors—end up getting fast-tracked to trendy criticisms which flatter their self-satisfied pride and befit their rebellious inclinations, predisposing them to suppose that any traditional account of things must be a ruse (without suspecting that the entrenchment of this attitude may itself be part of an elaborate ruse). Original meanings, arguments and purposes are neglected precisely so that new meanings and purposes may supplant them without having to argue for them.
America is indeed founded upon certain self-evident truths regarding human nature, but these are now interpreted programmatically as if they ordained specific, comprehensive outcomes for the nation, and ultimately the world. Students are disinclined to read the past generously and they are rarely encouraged to examine primary source materials for themselves and inspect them on their own terms. They would primarily expect to find in them causes for censure and rebuke anyway, and they have at their disposal interpretive lenses designed to assign blame and celebrate naught but the obscure. It turns out that there is absolutely no need to burn down libraries when potential students are convinced that they contain little of continuing relevance. It is, however, in my experience, always satisfying to watch all but the most intransigent students discover that political and philosophical primary source texts defy the prevailing doctrinaire interpretations of them which are responsible for their initial aversion to them.
I hope my American readers will forgive my use of Canada as an instructive example. Of course, too often Canadians wish that Americans would learn more from Canada, supposing that most of the world’s problems follow from the world (and America in particular) being insufficiently Canadian. But it is precisely this attitude that I find illustrative here. If Americans want to know what happens when political history withers away as a subject of instruction, they should consider its marked disregard among their nearest neighbors. Canadians typically know little of their own particular political history, their institutions of government, or the history of the modern West more generally.
Scholars like Janet Ajzenstat who are committed to resuscitating the study of Canada’s political-philosophical history have a very specialized audience. Canadians regard their own history an unremarkable story, but they are remarkably confident about the destiny of Canada, which happily coincides with the imagined destiny of the international community. Canadians today locate their virtue in their sympathetic sentiments, correct opinions and good intentions. They underestimate how much of their continued peace and prosperity they owe to good fortune, including geography and the virtue of generations past. They are unconsciously Hegelian in many ways, including their confidence that the necessary trajectory of history is plain, making it unnecessary to study history as if its examples might teach us anything.
It is the shared prejudice of most intellectual elites and the students here that Canada represents the end of history in its closest approximation known hitherto—where politics ought to be regarded as over, where progressive values are settled and secure, where all that is left to be done is to establish the neutral technocratic administration of things in accordance with social justice, featuring multicultural harmony, a sustainable environment, and unlimited universal health care. We love to stand on guard as peacekeepers, but to participate in fighting any war is felt as self-immolation. Reasoned public debate in Canada regarding political ideas and socioeconomic issues is relatively truncated, and there is much puzzlement and frustration here regarding the degree to which it continues in America. “Canadian values” are set at the level of policy outcomes, regulatory regimes and funding priorities. To consider raising questions regarding these is decried as ideological. The comparative paucity of the political conversation in this country, however, has the effect of rendering discourse across the spectrum a little thin. All sides are short on the rhetorical capacity to engage and persuade a politically passive populace to consider changing course.
I wouldn’t say that that the neglect of civic learning in Canada is the singular cause of this political perspective, nor would I argue that this neglect is engineered to produce it. But in the spirit of the kind of analysis conducted by ISI, I bet that there is a correlation. Without the benefit of extensive survey research, it seems to me that for most young Canadians the political history of the nation effectively begins in 1982, when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was established, although the details of that time are shrouded by the mists of the distant past in the minds of today’s undergraduates. The Charter is now generally regarded as if it represents the whole of the Constitution. The future of Canada is reckoned as the gradual realization of the ideals perceived as implicit in and flowing from that document (irrespective of the words it actually contains or were omitted from it), as interpreted by judges, activists, journalists, academics and (lastly,) elected representatives. Within Canada, the residents of Quebec receive the most education in political history, but the reasons for this are peculiar, and the version taught is politicized. Ironically, the exceptionalism of Quebec arguably has less to do now with its distinct heritage (much of which the nationalists disowned a generation ago) than with its greater devotion to statist progressivism. (The preponderance of government logos on display in this province is decidedly Orwellian.) I almost wonder if a case couldn’t be made that Quebec has become the most Canadian province.
Students in a liberal democracy should not, of course, be taught blind veneration for the past. They should learn that there were important disagreements regarding fundamental ideas and institutions, tough choices and compromises, contingencies that limited possibilities, errors in judgment as well as outright wrongdoing. Those who recognize the need to teach political history should not romanticize that history or anticipate partisan benefits from teaching it. Teaching students to make good judgments regarding the past means allowing them to admire and praise as well as lament and blame. Political history taught well leaves room for broad disagreement in its assessment, interpretation and use. Its negligence tends merely to confirm settled opinions. Teaching political history should be about neither promulgating illusions nor cultivating disillusionment. While the neglect of the past may be used to advance a utopian image of the future, it ultimately contributes to a general disillusionment with political life as a whole because that future will never come to be. Students figure this out by the time they get a job. A one-sided treatment of the past that puts only its imperfections on display contributes to the despairing view that political participation befits none but the zealous, myopic or corrupt, leaving it to them while the rest focus on their careers, bodies, and 1.5 children. Cultivating civic learning before too many habit- and prejudice-forming years have passed is needful so that the younger generation doesn’t decide that active citizenship isn’t worthwhile. This requires moderating the unrealistic demands that they are prone to in their immaturity while showing them how political mechanisms actually work and some good things get accomplished.
Loyalty to the world to come—once otherworldly and now this-worldly—has always diminished practical political activity in the world that is. It is ironic that the society which is actually good enough to give people the idea that a more perfect union is possible should come to be seen as so terribly flawed precisely because it continues in practice to fall short of the theoretical promise of its premises. It is strange how societies which are based on contrary premises are then esteemed and defended against it by the proponents of its perfection. It is similarly perplexing that those who hesitate or profess a refusal to talk about the Good and the True nevertheless remain confident about identifying and rectifying Injustice, sometimes erecting an imagined Global Community as a standard of judgment.
A dedication to progress is an undeniable aspect of the American experiment throughout its history, and an evenhanded examination of American history would recognize that continual efforts on behalf of the regime’s betterment are encouraged by its very design. But the achievement of realistic improvements is always dependent on a due recognition of the possible, as limited by the failings of beings who are naturally but not perfectly free and rational, and whose imperfections are of a sort that they cannot be wholly transcended by human effort, however well-intentioned. An awareness of the possible depends on familiarity with the history and institutions of the regime and the experience of active citizenship.
The ISI survey mostly tests for rudimentary factual knowledge and comprehension of basic terminology. Questions relevant to issues in race, gender, and diversity and other politically charged topics are included in the survey but do not touch upon elements of controversy. ISI aimed to make the test “neither too easy nor too difficult,” and I find the questionnaire fair by that standard. 1 Sample questions ask students to identify the quarter-century during which Lincoln was President, the main theme of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, where judicial review was established, and the purpose of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Participants are asked the meaning of concepts such as federalism, profit, the separation of powers and inflation. Only a couple of questions require logical thinking. As a multiple choice test, the correct answers are always in front of the students to choose from or guess at. To be sure, a multiple choice format oversimplifies some things and leaves some answers imprecise. For instance, that Plato truly “points to the desirability of philosopher kings” in The Republic is not an uncontroversial claim among interpreters of the text, even if it is the best choice among the options offered by the survey.
The ISI survey does not test the degree to which higher education succeeds at persuading students to adopt particular worldviews or favor particularly controversial or ideological interpretations of events and institutions. A subsequent survey could attempt to measure that, too. Questions with controversial answers could be asked in additional sections of the survey or strategically inserted throughout. It would then be possible to determine how Americans happen to understand themselves, their society and the world before they arrive at college, and how successful the college experience is at molding their views. It could furthermore be discovered whether or not certain political judgments and agendas line up with lesser or greater awareness of names, dates, events, the structure of government and the mechanisms of the marketplace. Universities could be even be ranked according to their success at inculcating values and attitudes. This is information that parents who are paying for the education of their children, and taxpayers who are funding public universities, might find even more compelling.
1. Without allowing myself credit for any of the questions I might have slightly guessed on (given that I possessed an answer key), I knew the answers to 49 of the questionnaire’s 60 questions. Okay for a foreigner, I suppose, but nothing to brag about. (The average American college senior scored 53.2% on the survey.) I discovered that eight of the eleven questions I wasn’t completely sure about were among the dozen questions which exhibited the most “negative learning” in the report’s findings. I hope I’m not a victim of too much higher education. Return to text
Travis D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.