Grassroots Commentary

Americans and Civic Literacy

Andy Kerl Jr. · Feb. 18, 2014

The Chicago Tribune in a February 14, 2014 article quoted U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, “Americans today are far less educated in civic duties than their 18th century forefathers who founded the nation and crafted its Constitution.” The State of civic literacy in the United States is a dismal statement to the failure of our public education systems. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute Civic Literacy Programs 2011 study comes to the following conclusions concerning the Civic Literacy of college students.

So what does the entire body of ISI’s civic literacy research say about the current status of such enlightened citizenship?

The answer to the first question is both simple and disheartening, “not very.” Let us review some of the major findings from ISI’s previous reports: • ISI has surveyed over 28,000 undergraduates from over 80 separate colleges, and the average score on our basic 60-question civic literacy exam was about a 54%, an “F.”

• At elite schools like Yale, Cornell, Princeton, Duke, Georgetown, and Johns Hopkins, their freshmen did better than their seniors on the same test, what ISI dubs “negative learning.”

• Among adults, those with a college degree also failed on average ISI’s civic literacy test, scoring little higher than their peers with a high school diploma.

• College-educated adults were particularly ignorant of the Founding and Civil War eras, constitutional themes, and the essential features of a market economy.

The only conclusion one can draw from these findings is that a college degree falls short in “enlightening” its students in the fundamental aspects of American republicanism. And contrary to conventional wisdom, ISI’s research reveals that especially at elite schools, there is a significant disconnect between formal higher education on the one hand, and greater civic learning on the other.

If Civic Literacy is this dismal at the college level imagine the civic illiteracy of government high school graduates and dropouts. What is remarkable in ISI’s conclusion is the fact that “College-educated adults were particularly ignorant of the Founding and Civil War eras, constitutional themes, and the essential features of a market economy.” How can this Nation survive when its supposedly most educated adults are so woefully ignorant of It’s basic tenants?

George Washington whom we celebrate this Presidents Day in his September 19, 1796 Farewell Message left us with much sage advice. One recommendation speaks to the failures of our times as witnessed by the ISI study. He said, “Promote then as an object of primary importance, Institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” When the founding principles of the United States are not being taught in our schools, how can we except the people to be anything but pawns in the game of the political elite and their desires for power. Individual Freedom protected by our constitution can not withstand the onslaught of designing politicians without a civically literate population.

Knowledge is power.

The Politicians understand this concept and also understand that the unknowledgeable are easier to control. Lincoln’s admonishment in the Gettysburg Address, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” is meaningless if the people are civically ignorant. “You know what I worry most about is … the decline of the republican spirit,” Scalia said softly during a brief question-and-answer session.“It doesn’t exist in our people with a vigor that used to exist. That’s what I’m most worried about, that we’re going to become just another, I don’t know, another undemocratic, politician-run state. Which our framers would never have supported. That’s why I think education in democracy, education in republicanism, is so important.”

That about says it all.

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