The Cost of Ignorance

By Matthew Robinson
CNS Commentary

Americans have a sense that something is seriously wrong with education in America. What they do not know is that the situation is far worse than they imagine.

A new study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni finds that the disease afflicting education reaches the nation's most elite colleges and universities. Turns out, most college seniors do not know the men or ideas that have shaped American freedom. Take just a few examples from "Losing America's Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century." It found that 81 percent of seniors at the nation's 55 top colleges score a D or F on high-school level history exams.

Very few students know anything about our First Citizen -- the man whose respect for the laws of the infant republic set the standard for virtue and restraint in office.

Barely one in three students knew that George Washington was the American general at the battle of Yorktown - the battle that won the war for independence. Only 42 percent could identify Washington with the line: "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen." And little over half knew that Washington's Farewell Address warned against permanent alliances with foreign governments.

Less than a quarter of them knew James Madison as the "Father of the Constitution." And when it comes to actually explaining the ideas that preserve freedom and restrain government, the seniors perform just as miserably. More than one out of three were clueless about the division of power set forth in the U.S. Constitution.

Even those terms that are part of the daily discussion about democracy are as unexplained as the X-Files.

Only 22 percent of these seniors, from such elite universities as Harvard, Stanford and the University of California, could identify the source of the phrase, "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people." (Answer: Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.)

There is reason to fret about such dismal results. Today citizens have a bigger say in democracy than ever before. Their knowledge and thoughts about government are tested in elections, focus groups, polls, and on the internet.

America was built on the idea of an informed citizenry. The founding fathers (those all-too-forgotten fellows) knew representative government works only when citizens are vigilant. We don't think of education in these terms much anymore. Most Americans value education as a subdivision of the economy. Better students mean a more competitive economy.

But the founders believed that an ignorant electorate would be defenseless against the silver tongue of demagogues (today's poll-obsessed politicians) who promise everything, in the face of law, reason or good sense. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be," Thomas Jefferson wrote famously.

John Adams agreed. "Education," he observed, "is more indispensable, and must be more general, under a free government than any other."

"Losing America's Memory" is not discouraging merely because these kids won't be able to compete on "Jeopardy!" The danger is that they will be hobbled citizens unable to understand or defend the constitutional ideas that make liberty possible.

Already less than 50 percent of adults can name their local congressmen. With the next generation showing a near perfect ignorance of the principles of American liberty, it is time to rethink how we educate students in citizenship and history.

But don't expect any real change. Not one of the nation's top colleges requires students to take a single course in American history. At 78 percent of these "institutions of higher learning," students do not have to take any history at all.

What about high school, where these college seniors were supposed to learn these basic facts in the first place?

The truth is, public schools are driving this stupidity. Teacher unions and special interests are sworn enemies of reform. And the modern classroom is polluted by education theories that focus on self-esteem and process in the name of progressive, New Age philosophies. Nowadays, Johnny's only chance of learning about George Washington is if he channels him.

The forces of ignorance are winning as the ACTA study shows.

Kids want to learn and they can retain facts. Unfortunately, much of their schooling seems to be in the popular culture, rather than the classroom. Fully 99% of college seniors knew the crude cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead. And 98% could identify gangsta rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Pop culture is filling the void abandoned by academia. The question is, with a generation of ignorant citizens like these today, what will polls, voting and debate mean tomorrow?

Matthew Robinson is a journalism fellow with the Phillips Foundation and an adjunct fellow of the Claremont Institute.


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