Our Fading Heritage: Testing Civic Literacy

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Our Fading Heritage: Testing Civic Literacy


December 16, 2008

Acknowledging the deep divides in America, a new study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) states:

On at least one significant question... we have forged a deep consensus. In all regions and strata of the country, large majorities agree that colleges should prepare citizen leaders by teaching American’s history, key texts, and institutions. 

Wonderful, but , as you probably expect, then the other shoe drops. The report, Our Fading Heritage, notes that approximately the same number who believe colleges should prepare citizen leaders flunked a basic civic literacy test. In fact, seventy-one percent of the 2,508 who took the test failed with an average score of forty-nine percent—a stunning “F.”

Among the dismal results:

  • Less than half can name all three branches of the government.
  • Only 21% know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
  • Although Congress has voted twice in the last eight years to approve foreign wars, only 53% know that the power to declare war belongs to Congress. Almost 40% incorrectly believe it belongs to the president.
  • Only 55% know that Congress shares authority over U.S. foreign policy with the president. Almost a quarter incorrectly believe Congress shares this power with the United Nations.
  • Only 27% know the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States.
  • Less than one in five know that the phrase “a wall of separation” between church and state comes from a letter by Thomas Jefferson. Almost half incorrectly believe it can be found in the Constitution.

The survey sample included people who had and had not graduated from college and in the process found that “college adds little to civic knowledge.” 

The average score for the college graduates…was 57%, an “F.” That was only 13 percentage points higher than the 44% earned by those who hold high school, but not college, diplomas.

This should actually come as no surprise since, while a majority of Americans may believe that colleges should teach America’s heritage, it is unlikely that most colleges and universities faculty would agree. First, such views do not sound politically correct. Beyond James B. Twitchell, who teaches at the University of Florida, in an article entitled “Higher Ed, Inc.” argued that colleges and universities are not as focused on any sort of teaching as they once were.

Before all else, the modern university is a business selling a branded product. The Age of Money has reshaped the terrain of higher education, writes David Kirp, of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Gone, except in the rosy reminiscences of retired university presidents, is any commitment to maintaining a community of scholars, an intellectual city on a hill free to engage critically with the conventional wisdom of the day. The hoary call for a marketplace of ideas has turned into a double-entendre. 

ISI tried to isolate anything that might add to or subtract from someone’s civic knowledge. On the plus side frequent discussions about public affairs and history, reading about public affairs and history, and involvement in political activities beyond voting tend to increase civic literacy. In fact, the gain from these three factors “is greater than the gain from a bachelor’s degree alone.”

On the negative side of the ledger is television along with other passive electronic media. 

…[A]ll else remaining equal, a person’s test score drops in proportion to the time he or she spends using certain types of passive electronic media. Talking on the phone, watching owned or rented movies, and monitoring TV news broadcasts and documentaries diminish a respondent’s civic literacy.

Media critic Neil Postman in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death wrote about TV news:

Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. …A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis.

Postman’s concern was that if entertainment displaces the kinds of conversations that produce and sustain civic literacy, it will be harder and harder to have any intelligent public discourse.  The ISI study would indicate that his worst nightmares are coming true.

Civic education is in this sense like religious education. Just as learning the catechism does not just happen, a solid—or even a basic—understanding of American history and institutions does not just happen. We must be intentional. Unfortunately we have not been intentional for several generations.

The ISI report concludes:

If we fail to teach children how American freedom was established and preserved, we cannot expect them to pass it on to future generations.

Parents, grandparents, teachers, professors, and alumni can all help solve the problem of poor civic literacy, a problem that will only get worse if we leave it unattended.


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