In the United States, there is tremendous emphasis placed on education, and rightly so. To remain globally competitive, it is essential that we graduate students well-educated in core subjects such as reading and mathematics.
But are we failing to educate in other areas? As the latest report from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) indicates, when it comes to teaching fundamentals that should unite us and strengthen us in our roles as citizens we have failed. 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.
This latest ISI report follows three previous surveys. In 2005, ISI launched a multi-year project to assess how America’s colleges and universities are educating their students to be informed and responsible citizens. In the first two reports (published in 2006 and 2008), ISI commissioned the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy to conduct a survey of 14,000 randomly selected freshman and senior students from 50 colleges and universities nationwide, including some of the nation’s most prestigious schools.
The survey consisted of sixty questions covering the basics of American history, government, foreign affairs, and economics. In the 2006 report, the average scores for the freshmen were 51.7 percent and the seniors were 53.2 percent. There was little change in the 2008 report, with the average score for freshmen at 50.4 percent and 54.2 percent for seniors.
Given these dismal findings, it is little wonder that so many Americans do not understand how much of the current national crisis is the result of our government functioning outside the limits prescribed by the Constitution. In addition, based on a new report from ISI, there is evidence that at least a substantial part of the political polarization that is dividing the country can be attributed to a failure to adequately educate people about our history, our economy, our form of government and our role in the world.
Following the surveys of college freshmen and seniors mentioned above, in 2008 ISI published a report entitled, Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions, that was based on a survey of 2,508 American adults further reinforces the serious decline in essential civic and economic knowledge. Over 70 percent of participants failed the test with an average score of only 49 percent. Of the college-educated, 57 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree failed the test.
There were also 164 participants who disclosed that they had been elected to government office at least once. Their average score was only 44 percent. Among those who formerly held elected office, 68 percent incorrectly answered the question regarding the definition of the free enterprise system, 89 percent did not know the difference between a free market and central planning (socialism). Perhaps these appalling results explain why so many in Congress support a national health care system… they may not know it is socialized medicine.
ISI’s latest report, The Shaping of the American Mind, discloses the degree of polarization between the views of those with a college degree and those who did not attend college. Among its major findings, the new study reports that among those age 18 to 24, only 51 percent believe America’s founding documents remain relevant. In addition, the survey found a wide difference of opinion on social and cultural issues with college graduates much more liberal.
The study, to be released today, also found that a higher level of civic knowledge, regardless of whether the person attended college or was a high school graduate, increased a person’s appreciation for American ideals, our founding documents and our free enterprise system. Moreover, a higher level of civic knowledge also appears to produce a more independent frame of mind.
Given the failure of our schools and colleges to provide an adequate civics education, individuals should educate themselves. A great resource for improving civic knowledge is Dr. Matthew Spalding’s book, “We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future,” published by ISI.
America was founded on ideas and principles; its future depends on the ability of each generation to pass on those ideas and principles to their children and to each new group of immigrants. Our Founding Fathers were convinced that, in order for our system of government to succeed, the nation would have to produce generations of citizens with solid morals and a willingness to participate in their government. We can still be a nation with divided political opinions, but those opinions need to be informed and guided by our founding principles with a new appreciation for the ideas and values on which America was founded and a new respect for constitutional government.
About the author: Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.