Constitution Day provides a critical opportunity for students and citizens to reflect on the importance of America’s Founding documents and their relevance to today’s culture. In a republican form of government, the dangers inherent in having an ill-informed electorate are real indeed. America’s leaders, from the Founding through modern times, have recognized that in order for our system of government to function and thrive, it would by definition require the dedicated and well-informed participation of American citizens.
Through a core education, wrote Thomas Jefferson, a citizen will learn, “to understand his duties to his neighbors and country … to know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains.”
President Kennedy eloquently observed, “There is little that is more important for an American citizen to know than the history and traditions of his country. Without such knowledge, he stands uncertain and defenseless before the world.”
The populist stirrings of the 2016 election have the news media suddenly clamoring about the importance of historical and civic literacy as a vital precondition for participation in the American system. Leading historians have reasonably suggested that a council of historians advise the next president of the United States.
But, in truth, these wholly appropriate observations and suggestions are late remedies for problems that have festered for decades.
Recent research from the American Council on Trustees and Alumni documents the civic and historical ignorance of so many of today’s college graduates. There is a growing chasm between what the graduates of our colleges and universities actually know — and what they need to know — to fulfill their duties as citizens.
Consider the fact that one-third of college graduates and nearly half of the general population can’t identify the Bill of Rights as a name given to a group of Constitutional amendments. More than one in 10 college graduates and nearly a third of the general population were unaware that the U.S. Constitution does not need to be reauthorized every four years.
These findings are representative of an epidemic afflicting American higher education. It’s no accident that students are finishing college with such a rudimentary understanding of our country’s laws, Constitution and political history. After all, few of their alma maters require them to study these subjects.
In fact, the vast majority of colleges and universities (82 percent) do not require students to complete foundational coursework in American history. At many of the most highly ranked universities, even a student majoring in history can receive a degree without taking even one course dedicated to U.S. history.
Many institutions also dilute the value of a U.S. history requirement by allowing such courses as “America Through Baseball” (University of Colorado at Boulder), “Mad Men and Mad Women” (Middlebury) or “Vampires and Other Horrors in Film and Media” (University of CaliforniaDavis) to suffice. Is it any wonder, then, that, nearly 10 percent of college graduates think Judith Sheindlin — the television personality better known as Judge Judy — is a member of the Supreme Court?
So it is indeed a welcome development that cultural observers are finally beginning to note the dangers of this erosion in constitutional knowledge. What can higher education leaders do to stem the tide of civic illiteracy?
First, halt the growth of curricular bloat. Elective courses with little, if any, relevance to the demands of career and citizenship have multiplied, even as universities have cut back on core curricula. At some point, students and parents should ask whether courses on reality TV, zombies and “the joys of garbage” are more valuable than a basic grasp of the U.S. Constitution and our three branches of government.
Institutions should instead require a solid, foundational course in U.S. history or government of all college students. Finally, colleges and universities must rigorously assess the effectiveness of their instruction in American history and government.
There are universities and university leaders who have exercised leadership by giving American history and government its rightful due in the curriculum. Michael Adams, then-president of the University of Georgia, affirmed his school’s commitment to a core curriculum in 2013 State of the University address, articulating his belief in the importance of “an understanding of the history of this nation and some shared vision of where it is headed.” In 2014, Paul Trible, president of Christopher Newport University, celebrated his university’s establishment of a requirement in American history as “essential preparation for citizenship and career” in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed.
Through focus on our history and our institutions of government, higher education can help to restore the broad awareness of our political and civic past that is necessary for engaged citizenship.
Civic illiteracy, on the other hand, disempowers young citizens, weakening their ability to engage in a democratic government and pass their institutions on to the next generation intact.
One happy result of the unusually contentious presidential campaign of 2016, regardless of one’s party affiliation, would be a sober look at what now passes for political discourse and the way that civic illiteracy plays into it. The leadership we get ultimately reflects how well prepared we are, to borrow Ben Franklin’s phrase, to keep our republic.
Parents, lawmakers, and voters should demand more of the colleges and universities that ought to prepare Americans for citizenship and leadership. Our students deserve it, and our nation needs it.
• Michael B. Poliakoff, Ph.D., is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to academic freedom, excellence and accountability at America’s colleges and universities. In January 2016, ACTA (goacta.org) published a detailed report on civic illiteracy called, “A Crisis in Civic Education,” followed by the July release of “No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave The United States out of the Major.”