America’s “Best” Colleges Fail in Civics

October 26, 2006 8:40PM

Drew Johnson What do Georgetown, Duke and M.I.T. have in common besides prestige, sky-high tuition fees and some of the toughest admissions standards in America? According to a recent study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), seniors graduate from these famed universities knowing less about American history and government than when they started. That’s right: Students in nearly a third of the universities surveyed by ISI were actually dumber in American civics as seniors than they were on their first day of college. In an attempt to determine how well America’s institutions of higher education prepare students to become knowledgeable citizens, ISI randomly selected more than 7,000 freshmen from 50 colleges to take a 60-question civic literacy test covering four subjects: 1) American history; 2) government; 3) America and the world; and 4) market economy. The same test was then given to more than 7,000 college seniors. Overall, college seniors earned an “F”—scoring an average of only 53.2 percent on the test. Many of the most prestigious universities in the United States performed the worst at educating their students in the subject of American civics. Three of the study’s poorest performing schools—Yale, Brown and Cornell—are Ivy League universities. Others, like the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan are among America’s most revered public universities. Not all universities performed poorly on the test. In fact, the highest-ranking university in the study was Tennessee’s own Rhodes College. Rhodes students’ scores rose an impressive 11.6% after four years at the Memphis-based college. What makes Rhodes stand out? Unsurprisingly, the study finds that seniors at Rhodes took an average of 1.3 more civics-related courses than the lowest ranked schools in the study. Further, the classes at Rhodes required a greater investment of time and effort to succeed. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, observed: “The business of education has acquired a new complexion by the independence of our country. The form of government we have assumed has created a new class of duties to every American.” Many of America’s leading schools are leaving our future leaders without the education necessary to perform these important civic duties. According to ISI, students at colleges scoring poorly on the civics test are less likely to vote, participate in community service and get involved in politics. This means that many of our nation’s top students will become disengaged from the political process. With a third of our colleges and universities failing to prepare students to become good stewards of our democratic republic, our nation must turn its attention to ensuring that our best and brightest are prepared with the knowledge necessary to become effective participants as citizens of America. The success of Rhodes College reflects a simple recipe for success in civic literacy that other colleges and universities should follow. By increasing the number, quality and rigor of courses in history, political science and economics, colleges and universities will produce engaged citizens who will enrich America for years to come.