Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions is the third major study conducted by ISI on the kind of knowledge required for informed citizenship. In 2006 and 2007, ISI published the first ever scientific surveys of civic learning among college students. Each year, approximately 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 schools nationwide were given a 60-question, multiple-choice exam on basic knowledge of America’s heritage. Both years, the students failed. The average freshman scored 51.7% the first year and 51.4% the next. The average senior scored 53.2%, then 54.2%. After all the time, effort, and money spent on college, students emerge no better off in understanding the fundamental features of American self-government.
This year, ISI sought to learn more about the real-world consequences of this collegiate failure. ISI crafted a study to measure the independent impact of college on the acquisition and maintenance of civic literacy over a lifetime. First, a random sample of 2,508 American adults of all backgrounds was surveyed, allowing comparisons to be made between the college and non-college educated. They were asked 33 straightforward civics questions, many of which high school graduates and new citizens are expected to know. Respondents were also asked several questions concerning their participation in American civic life, their attitudes about perennial issues of American governance, and other behaviors that may or may not contribute to civic literacy. Finally, the results were run through multivariate regression analysis, allowing ISI to compare the civic impact of college with that of other societal factors.
Do Americans possess the knowledge necessary to participate wisely in the affairs of the nation? Read below to find out.
Americans Fail the Test of Civic Literacy
Seventy-one percent of Americans fail the test, with an overall average score of 49%.
- Liberals score 49%; conservatives score 48%. Republicans score 52%; Democrats score 45%.
- Fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of government, a minimal requirement for understanding America’s constitutional system.
Colleges Should Teach America’s Heritage
Americans remain divided over many issues, but on one they have forged a deep consensus. A large majority agrees that colleges should prepare citizen leaders by teaching America’s history, key texts, and institutions.
- Seventy-three percent in the West, 69% in the Midwest, 74% in the Northeast, and 74% in the South agree.
- Seventy-four percent of conservatives agree, as do 71% of liberals.
- Seventy-two percent with a high school diploma and 74% with a graduate degree agree.
College Adds Little to Civic Knowledge
Earning a college degree does little to increase knowledge of America’s history, key texts, and institutions. The average score among those who ended their formal education with a bachelor’s degree is 57%, or an “F.” That is only 13 percentage points higher than the average score among those who ended their formal education with a high school diploma.
- Only 24% of college graduates know the First Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States.
Television—Including TV News—Dumbs America Down
ISI examined whether other factors add to or subtract from civic literacy and how they compare with the impact of college. The survey revealed that in today’s technological age, all else remaining equal, a person’s test score drops in proportion to the time he or she spends using certain types of passive electronic media. Talking on the phone, watching owned or rented movies, and monitoring TV news broadcasts and documentaries diminish a respondent’s civic literacy.
In contrast to these negative influences, the civic knowledge gained from the inexpensive combination of engaging in frequent conversations about public affairs, reading about current events and history, and participating in more involved civic activities is greater than the gain from an expensive bachelor’s degree alone.
What College Graduates Don’t Know About America
By the time an American earns a bachelor’s degree, it is highly unlikely that he or she will have a solid command of the founding and Civil War eras, core constitutional principles, and market economics. Pre-college education tends to increase knowledge of themes from twentieth-century American history at the expense of economics and pre-twentieth-century themes that tend to be the foundation of much subsequent political discourse. Colleges begin to reverse this trend, but not enough to close significant gaps in these crucial categories of civic knowledge.
- Only 54% can correctly identify a basic description of the free enterprise system, in which all Americans participate.
Elected Officials Score Lower than the General Public
Officeholders typically have less civic knowledge than the general public. On average, they score 44%, five percentage points lower than non-officeholders.
- Thirty percent of elected officials do not know that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.
A Call to Reform
ISI calls on administrators, trustees, donors, faculty, parents, and elected officials to reevaluate curricula and standards of accountability so that colleges can better prepare their graduates for the responsibilities of informed citizenship.
- Do colleges require courses in American history, politics, economics, and other core areas?
- Do colleges assess the civic or overall learning of their graduates?
- Do elected officials link college appropriations to real measures of civic or overall learning?
- Do parents make college selection choices based upon a school’s actual academic performance?