Lawyers Journal

Democratic liberty requires an educated public

Civic apathy, especially among the young, is now the norm. Most college students don't vote, don't involve themselves in political campaigns and don't follow public affairs.

Forty state constitutions mention the importance of civic literacy among citizens, and 13 of them state that a central purpose of their educational system is to promote good citizenship, democracy and free government. Yet according to the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, school-based civic education is in decline. Most formal civic education today comprises only a single semester course on government '€” compared to as many as three courses in democracy, civics, and government that were common until the 1960s.

Numerous factors work against even the best intentions educators may have to promote civic engagement among young people. These obstacles include fear of criticism and litigation if educators address topics that may be considered controversial or political in nature; pressures to meet the goals of high-stakes testing, which now measures reading and mathematics skills (civic education is rarely included); and budget cutbacks in extracurricular programs that help children gain civic skills and attitudes.

As part of a program to strengthen civic literacy '€” the understanding of America's history and political institutions '€” The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a nonprofit organization to promote knowledge of the nation's founding principles, commissioned a survey of more than 14,000 randomly selected freshmen and seniors at 50 four-year colleges and universities nationwide. The students were given 60 multiple-choice questions, testing their knowledge of U.S. history, government, foreign affairs and economics. The average freshman flunked the test, correctly answering only 52 percent of the questions. The average score among seniors was 53 percent.

The report is the latest effort to raise concerns that students aren't being prepared to be informed, engaged citizens. Among ISI's findings:

America's colleges and universities fail to increase knowledge about America's history and institutions.

According to the ISI report, there is a trivial difference between college seniors and freshmen regarding their knowledge of America's heritage. Seniors scored just 1.5 percent higher on average than freshmen, and at many schools, seniors knew less than freshmen about America's history, government, foreign affairs and economy. Overall, college seniors failed the civic literacy exam, with an average score of 53.2 percent, or an F, on a traditional grading scale.

Prestige doesn't matter '€” Ivy League education contributes nothing to a student's civic learning.

The survey showed no relationship between the cost of attending college and the mastery of America's history, politics and economy. Moreover, of the 50 schools surveyed, including Brown, Georgetown and Yale, 16 schools' seniors scored lower than freshmen, suggesting that they will graduate with even less civic knowledge than what little they had as freshmen.

Students can't learn what colleges don't teach.

Schools where students took more courses related to American history and institutions outperformed those schools where fewer courses were completed. The absence of required courses in American history, political science, philosophy and economics suggests a negative impact on students' civic literacy. Moreover, civic learning improves significantly at colleges that value excellent teaching in the classroom and maintain high homework standards. Additionally, civic learning is significantly greater at schools with comparatively traditional core curricula.

Greater civic learning goes hand-in-hand with more active citizenship.

Students who demonstrated greater learning of American history and its institutions were more engaged in citizenship activities such as voting, volunteer community service and political campaigns.

Recommended solutions

The ISI report concludes with five recommendations to improve undergraduate learning about American history and institutions:

'€¢ Improve the assessment of learning outcomes at the college and university level;

'€¢ Increase the number of required history, political science and economics courses;

'€¢ Hold higher education more accountable to its mission and fundamental responsibility to prepare its students to be informed, engaged participants in a democratic republic;

'€¢ Better inform students and their parents, public officials and taxpayers of a given university's performance in teaching American history and institutions; and

'€¢ Build academic centers on campuses to encourage and support the restoration of teaching American history, political science and economics.

High school accountability and

personal activism

The Harvard Crimson, the daily paper of Harvard university where seniors scored 69.7 percent correct on the ISI survey, or a "D" on a traditional grading scale, counters that encouraging participation, not mandatory college civics courses, is the answer.

"There is no reason to believe that correctly answering fewer than 60 percent of the ISI's questions'€“'€“the average score was about 52 percent'€“'€“is evidence of true civic illiteracy, and not of unreasonably difficult or obscure questions," stated the Crimson staff. "We ought to focus on combating the problem at its source: by offering strengthened civics courses in high school. After all, it is in high school that most students undertake their most comprehensive study of our nation's history and institutions. Students should leave high school with a thorough and conceptual understanding of our nation's basic political and governmental landscape, not a list of names and events to have memorized."

In fact, according to Heidi Perlman, director of communications for the Massachusetts Department of Education, in 2001, the Board of Education discontinued use of its 10th grade world history test and directed the department to create a U.S. history test. In 2002, the new history and social science framework was adopted, which is heavy on U.S. history, especially in high school. Starting with the class of 2012, all students will be required to pass a U.S. history test to pass high school.

"We are serious about history here," said Perlman. "We are fully aware of the need for students to have a grasp of U.S. history and a better understanding of how our system of government works. We are doing what we can to move that forward."

Debby Scire is the executive director of The Campus Compact for New Hampshire, one of 18 state coalitions across the nation committed to advancing new policies and practices relating to improved civic learning and youth engagement. According to Scire, "There needs to be a closer alignment between K-12 and higher education. With [No Child Left Behind], there has been a decline in emphasis on social studies, especially civics courses, because social studies assessments are not as common as those for math, reading and science'€¦ and while [those] subjects are important, it should not be the focus at the expense of commitment to democratic principles."

Scire cautioned, "A civically engaged citizenry is the foundation for democracy, and if ours is to survive, it will take commitment from all of us. We must work to reverse the current trend away from political involvement, and our first step is to insure that all students have an appreciation for the foundations of our democracy."

The Crimson suggests promoting methods for keeping political engagement alive outside the classroom, and offers Harvard's Institute of Politics as an example. The IOP coordinates political activities and sponsors speakers and events, offering students an applied learning experience.

One IOP program helps 5th-8th grade teachers in the classroom by bringing Harvard undergraduates to work with school children. The curriculum teaches school children the structure of United States government and the rights, responsibilities and privileges of being a U.S. citizen. While the lessons teach the mechanics of the political process, they also emphasize the importance of personal involvement.

Alan Tabak, Harvard University class of 2007 and co-chair of the IOP civics program, said that although he is more well-read and nuanced in his thinking in college than he was in high school, "if by the time you get to college you don't already have solid foundation in terms of knowledge of global affairs and American government in particular, it's really too late."

"The answer is not more civics courses at collegiate level," said Tabak. "Getting involved in political groups or institutions, volunteering in ways to make students more aware of how politics work, what can you do about it, giving them a sense of efficacy '€” that's what is needed to improve the situation."

Tabak added, "If we proceed at our current low level of civil knowledge, we continue to foster a public that is uninformed about public life, prone to making choices on misinformation or attack ads. Lack of knowledge promotes a sound bite culture rather than healthy civil debate about our policies and who our leaders should be."

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association