Greater Civic Knowledge Trumps a College Degree as the Leading Factor in Encouraging Active Civic Engagement
Acommon theme of all ISI civic literacy studies has been the surprising disconnect between formal collegiate schooling and the acquisition of knowledge of America's fundamental history, key texts, founding principles, and governmental institutions. For instance, in ISI's survey of 14,000 freshmen and seniors in 2007, ISI discovered that not only did the average college student fail our test of civic literacy, but at Ivy League schools like Yale, Cornell, and Princeton, their freshmen did better than their seniors on the same test, what ISI dubs “negative learning.”
In 2008, ISI conducted a similar civic literacy assessment, but this time of college and non-college educated adults. Again, college graduates failed our exam on average, and there were only marginal gains in civic knowledge as a result of a college versus high school diploma. It is a common assumption among the consumers of higher education that with more expensive schooling comes significantly more learning. The unfortunate conclusion that must be drawn from ISI's civic literacy research is that this assumption must be dramatically scaled back.
It makes perfect sense that a greater understanding of the history and institutions of America would encourage greater participation in political life.
Furthermore, ISI's research detects clear divergences between the effects of a college degree on one hand, and greater civic knowledge on the other, when it comes to some of the outward manifestations of American political life. For example, our work in both 2006 and 2007 among current college students revealed that regardless of a person's raw score on our test, the more a student learned during their collegiate career, the more likely they were to vote and volunteer on political campaigns. Mere college attendance had no similar positive participatory effect. And in the 2009 report, there were clear differences between college and knowledge when it came to a person's personal politics, with a college degree pushing people toward the liberal and Democratic wings of the spectrum, while greater civic knowledge, no matter its origin, encouraged an equal and opposite move to the conservative and Republican poles. It was also the case that greater civic knowledge exerted no clear-cut ideological preferences when it came to such hot button social issues as abortion and same-sex marriage, while the college degree made graduates more likely to adopt more liberal attitudes towards those controversies.
Our second finding, detailed in the below table, once again demonstrates the stark differences between merely earning a degree and actually learning something concrete about your country's bedrock institutions. We now know that other than casting a ballot, a college degree—defined as all those intellectual and cultural experiences in the undergraduate years, independent of ISI's measure of civic learning—has no discernible impact one way or another on the active forms of civic engagement that ISI has identified as crucial to meaningful citizenship. By contrast, greater civic knowledge turns out to be the leading factor in encouraging ISI's definition of active civic engagement.
Greater civic knowledge was positively correlated with all seven facets of active engagement ISI identified, both collectively and separately. It encouraged those with greater knowledge to perform both the private functions of writing a letter to the editor and contacting a public official, as well as the more public role of a campaign worker or attendee at a political meeting or rally. Interestingly, the only form of political participation that was negatively correlated with greater civic knowledge was winning elective office (see the additional finding for further details).
The Impact of Civic Knowledge, College, High School, and Teaching on “Passive” and “Active” Civic Engagement
The table at right also reveals some important findings regarding the participatory impact of other aspects of American education. Even a high school degree has greater civic impact than a college diploma when it comes to registering to vote and signing a political petition. And there are some fascinating similarities and differences in the civic habits of K–12 and college teachers.
While being a K–12 teacher is neutral when it comes to the likelihood of voting, being a college teacher actually makes one less likely to show up on election day. However, both teaching levels have a positive relationship between many of the active aspects of civic engagement, including working on a campaign, contacting a public official, and publishing a letter to the editor.
It makes perfect sense that a greater understanding of the history and institutions of America would encourage greater participation in political life. What is discouraging is that a college degree, as defined by ISI's conceptualization of the college experience, has very little to do with stimulating more active modes of civic engagement.
How might civic self-education and video games influence active civic engagement? Read on for those findings.