Sunday, February 05, 2012

What College Graduates Don’t Know About America


Three years ago, I wrote the following article about whether or not college has a positive impact on good citizenship. It had the boring title, "The Civic Impact of College."  ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ Not surprisingly, it didn't get many views.

But I think it is an important topic, and my last article about college ("Does College Matter?") generated quite a bit of interest, so I thought it was time to revisit the question.

The Civic Impact of College - January 28, 2009

Are you more knowledgeable than the average citizen?

Our Fading Heritage is the third major study conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute on the kind of knowledge required for informed citizenship.

Its conclusions are appalling. But lets look at the background.

In 2006 and 2007, 14000 college freshmen and seniors were given a multiple-choice quiz containing 60 basic questions about America - the kind of stuff high school seniors and new citizens are expected to know.

The kind of stuff homeschoolers eat for breakfast.

In both years, both groups utterly failed. And worse, the seniors only had a 1.5% advantage over the freshmen. So, basically, this means that after spending a fortune on college, the students do not gain any appreciable knowledge about America's unique form of self-government. Moreover, the more prestigious the college, the LESS likely the seniors were to know more than freshmen about government, economics, American History, and foreign affairs.

This year, ISI decided to take it to the streets. They asked a random sample of American adults to answer a basic test of only 33 multiple choice civics questions, plus a few other additional questions, then analyzed the data in such a way that enabled them to compare the "civic impact of college with other societal factors."

In other words, do colleges help our students become better citizens?

Now for the appalling part. The answer is a resounding NO.

  • 71% of Americans fail the test
  • Fewer than half of all Americans can name the three branches of government
  • Only 24% of college graduates know that the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of an official religion in the US
  • Only 54% can identify a basic description of our free enterprise system
  • Elected Officials score even lower than the general public
Thirty percent of elected officials do not know that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps this is the reason we have gotten into such a mess.

You can read the whole sad story at the ISI website.

If you are very brave, why don't you take the test yourself and see whether you are more knowledgeable than the average citizen?

Then contrast this with the good news about homeschooling and civics education Homeschooling Grows Up, a report by the National Center for Home Education about behaviors of adults who were homeschooled. According to this report, 76% of those 18-24 have voted in a state or national election within the previous 5 years, compared to 29% of the general US population, and a staggering 95% of those 25-29 have voted versus 40% of the general population.

Now, in the wake of the Obama campaign and his subsequent election, those statistics are probably no longer accurate as far as sheer numbers of younger voters in the general populace are concerned, though a case could still be made about whether those who voted could be considered "informed citizens."

Large numbers of young white voters from elite colleges voted for Obama. Tomorrow's post will examine some interesting information about the "civic impact of elite colleges."

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Last time I didn't actually get around to writing that additional post about elite colleges. But there is a lot of interesting new information from 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 on the ISI website since I wrote this post that I would like to talk about in future posts.




22 comments:

  1. Interesting. I took the test, just to see how much I remembered (or had forgotten). I did pretty well. These kinds of things fascinate me because I wonder what people consider to be "essential" information. Thanks for sharing the test link!

    ~Luke

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    1. Luke, did you agree with their assessment of what was "essential?" In the article they mentioned that people could not describe the free enterprise system or the three branches of government, among other things - and that 30% of elected officials don't know that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence. That's pretty basic stuff. I don't think it matters if you don't know what the date of the First Continental Congress was, but there are some things you need to know about our form of government so that you can recognize when certain branches of government are stepping out of the bounds of the what they were authorized to do!

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  2. Susan, you inspired me to write a post today [smile].

    On the one hand, you're totally right: Some of this stuff is really basic and we should probably recognize it when we see it. On the other hand, you're also right: We need to know how to apply our knowledge to situations we encounter (that was one of the points I tried to get across in my post). But based on that, I don't think they hit the "essentials" at all. Not necessarily because they don't know what's important, but more because you can't get at that information with a multiple choice test. Knowing that we have "checks and balances" does little for helping us know how to better check and balance things when they get off track.

    My two cents. Great question!

    ~Luke

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  3. Susan,

    That was interesting. I passed, but didn't ACE it. I love American History, but don't remember all the details that I learn!

    Great post!

    By the way, I have to fill a captcha to submit comments here, too! Funny, since we have blogger blogs as well!

    Sally

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    1. Hi Sally, thanks for your comment. I honestly don't think anyone remembers the "details" much. What I think is appalling is not so much that people can't regurgitate the dates and "facts," but that they don't know enough about the how and why our government was set up the way it was to recognize when the branches of government are overstepping their authority, and then to know what to do about that!

      Don't tread on me! :-)

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  4. So after more and more money being funneled into government-run education, we get graduates who are less and less informed about how our country is supposed to work. But we have a lot more experts in gender and peace studies! (Where are the jobs for those degrees?) How telling it is that our elected officials are even more ignorant than the general public. As one commentator put it, the positive side of partying all through college is that you come out of it less brainwashed. Thanks, Susan!

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    1. HAHAHA Maybe I should have partied more. I came out of college a thoroughly radicalized Young Socialist. Sometime perhaps I will share my story of my journey to conservatism from the land of SomewhatToTheLeftOfObama. Thanks for your comment, and for sharing this post on Facebook. I really enjoyed some of the comments by your Facebook friends!

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  5. Thanks for the link to the quiz. I took it and missed one question (96.97%). If college educators only score 55% on those kinds of questions, that's pretty pathetic. No wonder college grads don't know much about history, or economics.

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    1. Pretty impressive! There is a quiz floating around online that purports to be an 8th grade final exam from a school in Salinas, Kansas in 1895. http://grandfather-economic-report.com/1895-test.htm which includes such questions as "What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance around which is 640 rods?" and "Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: Card, ball, mercy, sir, odd, cell, rise, blood, fare, last." They were still teaching about diacritical marks, hectares and rods and so on when I was in school, but I guarantee you I could give these questions to a National Honor Society inductee of my acquaintance and she would not be able to answer them. Is this "essential" information? Probably not. But some of the skills we learned from exercises like these helped us later on when it was time to interpret some of things we were learning in college or from our own exploration later in life.

      I couldn't have aced that 1895 test if my life depended on it. How would you have done?

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  6. We have political candidates for President that can't even name some of the Executive departments of our government. Why should our students be asked to do more?

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    1. Sonic, you made me laugh aloud! I believe that President Obama once said that he had visited all 57 states during his 2008 campaign, and he has an Ivy League education! I guess this validates the finding that there was an inverse relationship between knowledge of the American process and the eliteness of the school. Thanks for your comment.

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  7. Am gonna take the test later tonight ... Where I grew us, US History was required in the 7th and 11th grads. Isn't that still the case?

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    1. Debra, I have no idea, as I homeschooled my kids, and pretty much required some American History, or government or economics or similar NJ courses every year. I believe when I was growing up we had US History in the 6th grade, Georgia civics in the 8th grade, and then US History again in 11th grade, with govt/econ in the 12th grade. Would love to hear what you think of the test!

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  8. Thanks for bringing this up... I should know more!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Shannon. As I mentioned before, knowing US History factoids for their own sake probably doesn't mean much. But they aren't teaching these, OR the weightier questions of how and why the government the government should work.

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  9. Wow, very interesting!

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  10. Missed one question, but very interesting indeed.

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