Civic Literacy in America

Joseph M. Knippenberg

September 1, 2007

Civic education and citizenship in America are, we’re told, in crisis. The evidence comes from the second annual civic literacy survey, Failing Our Students, Failing America, released last week by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Civic Literacy Program.

Across the country, 14,000 college freshmen and seniors took a sixty-question civic literacy quiz. On average, students answered just over half the questions correctly. To most reasonable observers, this looks like an “F.” Harvard’s seniors earned the highest average mark for any institution: you can round their 69.6% up to a 70, for a “C-.” From there, it was downhill for seniors, all the way to a low of 32.5% at one Florida college. The range of freshman mean scores was equally unimpressive, running from 29.75% to 68.94%.

Since ISI generously released the questions, I took the opportunity to administer the survey to an unscientific sample of students at my institution—basically all the classes I met after the report was issued. I wish I could be more pleased when I say that my students beat the national average, but a more appropriate (and blunt) response came from one student after we went over the quiz: “We sucked.”

Perhaps the most common response from my students was that they would have done better on the test in high school, with their study of American history and government fresh in their minds. (I should note that most of the students I quizzed are in classes I teach in our Core Curriculum and are not majoring in politics or history.) I’m willing to take them at their word, but this just points to another problem. Even if they once could have answered a higher proportion of questions correctly, they haven’t retained much of what they learned. Speaking “unscientifically,” they crammed it into their brains to get through their classes and permitted it to be displaced by other things after they had dealt with that pressing academic necessity.

To the degree that this is true, not just of my students, but of their peers across the country, a couple of conclusions follow. First, if we make a point of retaining knowledge we value, many of our students haven’t been persuaded to value the kind of “civic knowledge” the ISI survey assesses. It’s just stuff you learn to pass a class, and then you’re done with it. While those who are enthusiastic about a subject surely retain a lot of this information, others file and forget. Thus, not surprisingly, my unscientific sample of politics and history majors did significantly better than their peers, who may devote more of what Inspector Poirot calls their little gray cells to organic chemistry or English literature.

Second, and related, if we make a point of retaining knowledge we use, the “fact” that some civic knowledge just doesn’t seem to have any use means that we’re likely to forget it. As one student put it to me, nothing she has ever done has required her to know in what century Jamestown was settled.

The first conclusion might lead us to raise some questions about the quality of teaching, at both the secondary and collegiate levels. We’re clearly having some difficulty persuading our students that the quality of their lives depends upon their capacity for self-government, which in turn depends upon knowing something about American history, the principles of American government, the role of America in the world, and the basics of economics. The enthusiasts are easy. But don’t we need to make an effort to reach those students—probably a significant majority—who are either endlessly fascinated by the daily flow of their personal lives or moved more by medieval drama, the circumstances of the Transylvania Germans, or “visual rhetoric” (the examples, by the way, are taken from conversations I’ve had with bright undergraduates in recent months)?

In our democratic republic, citizenship isn’t a special preserve of the few (however much we political scientists would be tempted by restricting power to students we’ve enthralled in our classes). It ought, in the best instance, to be the responsibility of all adults, or at least of those who claim to be “well-educated.” But we apparently haven’t sold even our good high school and college students on this proposition yet.

I’m tempted to argue that part of the problem lies with our political leaders, whose language and arguments are developed more through focus groups and advertising gurus than through an intimate acquaintance with American history, political thought, and constitutional law. Rather than using their bully pulpits to educate and elevate, appealing to the “better angels of our nature” or the “mystic cords of memory,” they all too often go in for mere demagoguery. Those of our students who pay attention to contemporary politics all too often find that it doesn’t demand the civic literacy we may be trying to impart. Others, finding it petty and boring, simply turn away.

But the poverty of our contemporary political discourse could also be said to be a product of our poor civic education. If our leaders were well educated, not in the techniques of political manipulation or even in the “policy sciences,” but in the traditional furnishings of the liberally and civically educated mind, if they took more seriously the burden of our history and our heritage, they might—just might—speak in a way that engaged their listeners and demanded of them the civic literacy we cherish.

So we do have an educational problem. And we can learn more about it by considering this helpful report.

A useful point of departure is considering what even good college freshmen bring to the table. In only ten of the fifty schools surveyed did the freshman average break 60%. While the ISI report focuses on the rather paltry accomplishments of most colleges, I would add that high schools don’t seem to prepare the ground very well. Some incoming students surely do quite well, and most, the survey tells us, can answer correctly questions about Martin Luther King, Jr., Brown v. Board of Education, the New Deal, and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But only four additional questions (out of, I repeat, sixty) were answered correctly by at least 70% of the freshmen. By contrast, fully one quarter of the questions were answered correctly by less than 40% of the freshmen.

If this is an accurate snapshot of what our college freshmen know, it has implications for what and how we teach. Like my colleagues across the country, I’ve had my share of bright, well-prepared freshmen who could rise to any challenge I place before them. They’re credible participants in upper-level classes populated largely by politics majors. But they’re the exception, not the rule, even, apparently, at the best schools in the country. If colleges and universities are to take seriously the task of civic education, faculty will have to grapple with the task of reaching those who were ill-served by their secondary schools.

And just repeating what was done poorly the first time through isn’t really an option. We gain little or nothing if students just “file and forget” a second time. We need to pay a great deal more attention than we have to the civic elements of our general education programs. They can’t just be left to adjunct faculty and graduate students, while the star professors enjoy stimulating interaction with the few well-prepared students in their areas of specialization.

Finally, while I appreciate the spotlight the ISI report shines on the challenges we face, the kind of accountability it represents—public reporting of student performance on a test—often simply encourages institutions to teach to a test. If it mattered, we all know how to drill students in the kinds of questions ISI or some other assessing body would be likely to ask. Test scores would probably improve, but I’m not convinced that they would represent a meaningful gain in civic literacy. Instead, I fear that, absent any real engagement of the students in their learning, absent the kind of teaching motivated by love of country and concern for citizenship, we would leave most students with a mass of facts that, over time, they would simply forget, just as they’d forgotten them before.

The authors of the ISI report are aware of this, I think, because they conclude by calling our attention to efforts underway across the country to deepen student and faculty understanding of citizenship. That’s where our initial focus should be—on programs like Ashland’s Ashbrook Center and Georgetown’s Tocqueville Forum. I’m certain that students deeply involved in these programs would “test well,” so to speak, but there are surely not enough participants to make a significant difference in any average test score.

The question, however, is whether it’s possible to bring what is special and stimulating about these programs to increasing numbers of students. Or should we be content with reaching the “leaders”?

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.