ALABAMA VOICES: Alarming ignorance of past bodes ill for our future

By Gary Palmer

If ignorance is any indicator, and it is, there is a coming crisis in American citizenship. According to a report issued by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, America’s colleges and universities are failing miserably when it comes to educating students about our nation’s history and its essential founding principles.

ISI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization that was founded in 1953 to advance a better understanding of the economic, political, and ethical values that sustain a free and humane society. Based on their report, they have their work cut out for them.

ISI commissioned the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy to conduct a survey of over 14,000 randomly selected freshman and senior students from 50 colleges and universities nationwide. The findings of the survey, which included some of the nation’s most prestigious schools, should be cause for serious concern as they revealed an immense lack of students’ core knowledge of American history, our founding principles and our governing institutions.

The students were asked 60 multiple-choice questions covering American history, government, America and the world, and the market economy. The average score for the college seniors was 53.2 percent, an F. The freshmen score was 51.7 percent, only 1.5 percent lower than the seniors, which indicates there is apparently very little civics and history being taught in our colleges and universities.

To be fair, with freshmen only getting 51.7 percent of the answers correct, it is very evident that our nation’s high schools are doing a pitiful job of teaching these topics as well. But that still does not excuse our colleges and universities.

The ISI report ranked the colleges and universities participating in the survey according to the difference between the scores of the seniors and the freshmen. This difference indicates how much additional learning in historical/governmental subjects takes place at the various schools. According to the survey results, the institutions that performed best were less well-known schools and those that had the worst scores were among the nation’s most prestigious institutions.

The top four schools in the ISI rankings were Rhodes College, Colorado State University, Calvin College and Grove City College. The lowest-ranking schools were Brown University (47th), Cornell (48th), the University of California, Berkeley (49th) and Johns Hopkins (50th). In fact, the bottom 10 included Wofford College (41st), the University of Virginia (42nd), Georgetown University (43rd), Yale (44th), the University of West Georgia (45th), and Duke (46th.)

Among the bottom 16 colleges in the survey, the freshmen actually scored higher than the seniors, which indicates that by the time these students graduate they will know less about American history, civics and economics than when they graduated from high school.

It is important to keep in mind that the survey was conducted by the University of Connecticut, so this was not a biased, right-wing attack against liberal academia.

Only two Alabama colleges were included in the survey: the University of Mobile, which ranked 8th, and the University of South Alabama, which ranked 22nd. Both ranked higher than many of the colleges that are considered among the elite institutions of higher learning such as Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Dartmouth and those already mentioned above.

One reason college seniors know so little about American history and civics stems from the fact that few of our colleges and universities require any history courses for graduation. In 2001, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni published the results of a survey by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research that reported none of the nation’s top 55 colleges and universities required any history courses for graduation, and only three — Colgate, Columbia, and the University of the South required a course in Western civilization.

Of the college seniors who participated in the Roper survey, 81 percent received a failing grade. Moreover, over half of them could not identify the U. S. Constitution as the source of the doctrine of the separation of power in American government and only 22 percent knew that the words "government of the people, by the people, for the people," came from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

And these students, who will graduate virtually uneducated about fundamentally important facts and principles related to our country’s history, its governance and its place in the world, are from supposedly the nation’s best colleges and universities. No wonder Princeton University professor Robert George recently wrote that, "It’s the rare student indeed who enters the classroom already aware that the Framers believed that the true bulwark of liberty was limited government."

Perhaps the loss of civic knowledge and the loss of the memory of the great ideas and values on which America was founded helps explain the incredibly hostile politics of today. Politicians have lost the common point of reference that we have always counted on to keep our system of government from falling apart, the shared ideals on which our nation was founded that have kept us together for 230 years.

These days it seems that there are few politicians in either party that are guided by convictions based on these time-tested principles. Consequently, our government has become a battleground of competing political and philosophical special interests that have abandoned these principles are thus undermining our liberty.

We should not be surprised. James Madison, the architect of the U. S. Constitution, observed that "only a well-educated people can be permanently a free people." And Thomas Jefferson warned future generations of Americans that, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be."

If the ISI report is an accurate indication, we face not only a coming crisis in citizenship, but also a coming crisis in the preservation of our liberty.

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