The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a nonprofit organization working to ensure excellence and accountability at America’s colleges and universities, has released a report titled “A Crisis in Civic Education” — and the news isn’t good.
The study reveals an alarming level of ignorance among recent college graduates concerning the American political system and their role as citizens. As an example, 43% of respondents failed to identify a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Aghast at such findings, the study examines the inability of policymakers and educators to reinvigorate civics in America. It then reaffirms the value of educating a civic-minded citizenry and concludes by proposing some of its solutions to restore civic education in America.
According to ACTA, the crisis in civic education is no secret. For fifteen years, education commissioners, syndicated columnists, and politicians have been urging the reinvigoration of civics in American education. Many of their calls for revitalization were prompted by an older study released by the ACTA in 2000 titled “Losing America’s Memory.” That study, much like the more recent release, found that the majority of respondents failed to identify common elements to citizenship such as “Valley Forge, keywords from the Gettysburg Address, or even basic facts about the Voting Rights Act.”
Despite calls for reform, however, research continues to show high levels of ignorance among American students regarding civics. Perhaps the most troublesome statistic revealed by ACTA’s study indicates that almost 10% of college graduates think that Judith Sheindlin, colloquially known as “Judge Judy,” sits on the Supreme Court.
The study finds that “our vast national expenditure on higher education has had little or no measurable effect on giving students the skills and knowledge they need for effective citizenship.” It seems that there has been a surfeit of calls to reinstate civic education, but a deficit of action.
Many colleges and universities promote student activism and community service without supplementing these things with necessary coursework, ACTA says. Without straightforward curricular requirements and objective assessments, schools’ efforts to instill the importance and appreciation of civic education in their students will continue to fall short. Moreover, many elite colleges’ history programs do not even require their students to study American history, and very few schools mandate a course in civics.
ACTA claims that the lack of civic education threatens to undermine the very philosophy that underpins and unites the country. Critics have charged that the push to learn civics is a veiled jingoistic attempt to assert America’s superiority. ACTA says that it should serve to remind students “that human fulfillment is to be found in liberty and self-government,” and that civics can only be revitalized through robust curricula in the classroom.
The study recommends that every American college and university require that students enroll in at least one course dealing with American history in which they study its institutions, founding ideas and seminal texts. No longer should it be assumed that freshmen arrive at college with a sufficient knowledge of civics, and institutions of higher learning should assess the effectiveness of their civic programs with objective examinations and assignments.
In other words, higher education in American should become an incubator of civic consciousness.
Federal and state governments should reinforce and monitor educational institutions’ commitment to teaching students civics by tying public funds to school’s fulfillment of standards, mandating outcomes and explicating expectations of what a modern citizenry should know.
ACTA recommends that schools’ alumni and donors should become involved in supporting civic programs and target their contributions to help revive or ignite civics classes. Additionally, students and parents should select schools that emphasize civic education and make clear their interests in civics to professors and administrators throughout the admission process.
ACTA cited the oft-referenced quote from Jefferson about what happens to a country that ignores civics:
Thomas Jefferson once said that “A nation that expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, expects what never was and never will be.”
The study asserts that “by allowing civic illiteracy, we have disempowered young citizens.” Young Americans have been failed by policymakers and politicians, colleges and universities, organizations and donors, the organization says, but there’s hope. Those individuals and institutions are the same actors that can now effectively reinvigorate civic education in America and ensure the evolution of a dynamic, informed and empowered citizenry.