A Report of the National Civic Literacy Board: The Coming Crisis in Citizenship
The Survey
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . .
it expects what never was and never will be.”

Thomas Jefferson

Since America’s founding, our nation’s leaders have repeatedly asserted—and rightly so—that America’s constitutional system of ordered liberty would endure if its citizens retained a vital comprehension of their nation’s guiding principles. Americans could not, however, be both ignorant and free. To be free we must continually aspire to attain a knowledge of and appreciation for America’s history and institutions: what we refer to in shorthand as “civic literacy.”

The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions asks the following question: Is American higher education preparing students for lives as informed and engaged citizens? Nearly all colleges and universities proclaim such a civic mission; few uphold it.

This year, Americans will invest more than $325 billion in undergraduate education. But until this report, it remained unknown whether colleges and universities actually used that enormous sum to improve undergraduate learning in this crucial area. Moreover, in recent decades colleges and universities have been criticized for modifying their general education curricula in such a way that they fail to introduce students to subject matter once considered foundational to future leaders in a democratic society. Unfortunately, the impact of such curricular changes on student civic knowledge has remained undocumented.

This report presents statistically valid evidence that, for the first time, reveals what American colleges and universities—including some of our most elite schools—add to, or subtract from, civic learning. Commissioned by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), the present study represents the culmination of a multiyear research process involving a team of professors experienced in the classroom, ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board, and the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy (UConnDPP).

In the fall of 2005, UConnDPP conducted the largest ever statistically valid survey of students’ learning in key fields needed to prepare them to be informed citizens. They asked an unprecedented number of college students, some 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities across the country, 60 multiple-choice questions in order to measure their knowledge in four subject areas: (1) American history; (2) government; (3) America and the world; and (4) the market economy.1 Taken together, students’ answers to these questions provide high-quality evidence of the state of teaching about America’s history and institutions on campuses throughout the nation. The results are not encouraging. Unless we take corrective action, they portend a coming crisis in American citizenship.

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