Media outlets around the country have reported that 10 percent of college graduates think Judith Sheindlin — better known as TV’s “Judge Judy” — is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Behind this embarrassing yet hilarious finding is the fact that there is a serious crisis in American higher education. Not funny at all is another finding that nearly half couldn’t identify the term lengths for U.S. representatives and senators.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has issued survey after survey, all of which confirm that we have an epidemic of civic and historical illiteracy.
In 2000, ACTA released the results of a survey of the historical knowledge of college seniors at the 55 top-ranked colleges and universities in the country. More than 80 percent of those surveyed would have received a “D” or “F” if it had been an exam.
A 2012 survey found that less than 20 percent of American college graduates knew the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation, and only 42 percent knew that the Battle of the Bulge occurred during World War II.
And in 2014, a survey found that more than a quarter of college graduates didn’t know Franklin D. Roosevelt was president during World War II, and one-third didn’t know he was the president who spearheaded the New Deal.
And all of these questions were multiple choice.
The American higher education system has fostered civic and historical illiteracy. Only 18 percent of the more than 1,100 colleges and universities in the What Will They Learn? study require a course in American history or government. In the other 82 percent of schools, students can graduate with no more knowledge of America than when they entered.
A newly released report, A Crisis in Civic Education, further reveals the extent of the problem.
The report notes that at prestigious Bates College, although students who major in history must take two courses in either Latin American history or East Asian history, they have no requirement to take a single one in U.S. history. Opponents of more rigorous requirements argue that students have already studied U.S. history in high school. But the surveys of college graduates, to say nothing of National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) results, show the fraudulence of that argument.
And it’s not just Bates that drops the ball. Of the top 25 ranked liberal arts colleges in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report, only two require students to take even one course in American history or government: the United States Naval Academy and the United States Military Academy.
Teaching about our history and government is particularly important today, as students around the country rally to eradicate the monuments to leaders of our past and, in some instances, even demand the curtailment of the First Amendment to eliminate perceived insensitivity and restrict news coverage.
At the College of William & Mary and the University of Missouri — Columbia, critics of Thomas Jefferson have defaced statues of the third president (and author of the Declaration of Independence), labeling him a “rapist” and “racist.”
At Hamilton College, the call is to topple alumnus Elihu Root, winner of the 1912 Nobel Peace Prize — because he oversaw territories acquired in the Spanish — American War.
These schools are among the many that don’t require the study of American history or government. So while the protests raise important issues, one can rightly ask: Do the protesting students bring sufficient knowledge and context to ensure an informed discussion? Sadly, there is little reason to believe that the debate will be premised on a strong understanding of our Constitution and our shared history.
An annual survey by the Newseum Institute revealed that in 2014, almost 40 percent of Americans said the First Amendment goes “too far.” If we want liberty and civic empowerment, it is more important than ever that students understand the fundamentals of our government and our history. It is time for trustees to stand up for substantive and rigorous requirements.
• Michael Poliakoff is vice president of policy at American Council of Trustees and Alumni.