- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009



It may be a cliche to say the college graduates of any given year face great challenges, but for the class of 2009 it is indisputably true. They confront a different world from the class of 1989 or even 1999.

A decade and two ago, our nation was at peace, our economy was booming and jobs were abundant. The future of our way of life - our freedom and our prosperity - seemed far more certain than it does today.

During their senior year, members of the class of ‘09 saw crises and conflicts on multiple fronts.

Our armed forces were deployed in two foreign wars, the gross domestic product declined at 6 percent for two straight quarters, the stock market crashed and unemployment soared. Banks and automakers became targets of unprecedented federal intervention, and cultural questions of the most profound nature - from how we define marriage to when we protect life - continued to spark heated debate in our legislatures, our courts and even in our beauty pageants.

What America will need most from this year’s graduates is enlightened citizenship. But will we get it? There is evidence to suggest we may not. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has been running a multiyear study of civic literacy in the United States, particularly among college students. The findings are alarming.

In 2006 and 2007, ISI gave 28,000 freshmen and seniors at colleges nationwide a 60-question, multiple-choice test on American history, politics, international relations and economics. The test was not complicated. It focused on the basics.

But in both years, the average senior failed - earning a score of 54.2 percent in 2007, which was only slightly higher than 50.4 percent earned by the average freshmen. Less than half the seniors knew Yorktown was the battle that ended the American Revolution; less than half knew NATO was formed to resist Soviet expansion.

Clearly, America’s colleges and universities are not preparing their graduates for informed and responsible citizenship. Even our elite schools are failing the grade. At Yale, Cornell, Princeton and Duke, their freshmen did better than their seniors - a phenomenon ISI terms “negative learning.”

The survey also showed that civic learning went hand in hand with civic participation. The more students learned about America’s history and institutions as undergraduates, the likelier they were to become involved in activities such as volunteering, working on a campaign, writing a letter to the editor or contacting a public official.

Last year, ISI extended its study of civic literacy beyond the college campus, giving a representative sample of more than 2,500 Americans from all walks of life a 33-question test on America’s history and institutions. This way, ISI could track the civic impact of a college degree over a lifetime, as well as compare the civic literacy of college graduates with that of high school graduates and new U.S. citizens.

Nationwide, the average score was abysmal - only 49 percent. Both Republicans and Democrats, on average, failed.

More than twice as many Americans (56 percent), the survey revealed, know that Paula Abdul is a judge on “American Idol” as know (21 percent) that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Worse, 164 survey respondents said they had been elected to office at least once in their lives, and the average score among these successful politicians was only 44 percent - 5 points lower than the average citizen.

Less than half of all Americans, the survey discovered, could name all three branches of government - the legislative, executive and judicial - a basic question on the U.S. citizenship exam. Only 49 percent correctly defined business profit as revenue minus expenses. Overall, college graduates did little better than high school grads and new American citizens.

However, there was good news, too. Citizens who frequently discussed current events and public affairs with their friends and family, it turned out, typically increased their test score by 5.5 points. For each hour per week they dedicated to reading history or current events, they increased their score by an additional tenth of a point.

Someone who makes a habit of reading and discussing history and current events, the survey proved, can learn more about America on their own than the typical undergraduate learns in college.

So, despite the failure of colleges and universities to teach their graduates America’s history and institutions - a disturbing trend that must be arrested - all is not lost for the class of ‘09.

As ISI’s research reveals, this year’s graduates can learn about our founding principles, our history and our governing institutions when they are out of college and on their own. They can rediscover America, an America they should have learned in college, in the congenial company of family and friends, and they can teach it to their own children at the dinner table and on family outings. And while they are engaged in their self-education, they ought to put pressure on their alma mater to once again make civic education a curricular priority for their school.

For the sake of their grandchildren and ours, they should start their rediscovery of America right away.

Lt. Gen. Josiah Bunting III, president of the H. Frank Guggenheim Foundation and superintendent emeritus of the Virginia Military Institute, is chairman of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board.

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