REPORT: Students clueless about American government, history

Brian Ledtke
Campus Reform Intern

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  • ACTA has released a new report that purports to show how little American college students know about their own country.
  • The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), released a report last month detailing what they call “a crisis in American civic education.”

    Over the past 15 years, ACTA, an “independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities,” has released multiple surveys and reports that show how ignorant college graduates are of America’s history and heritage.

    "[Students can't list] the term lengths of members of Congress, the substance of the First Amendment..."   

    The newest report puts the blame squarely on the universities.

    “[Students] cannot identify the term lengths of members of Congress, the substance of the First Amendment, or the origin of the separation of powers,” says the report by the ACTA.

    One example cites a recent Newseum survey finding that one-third of Americans couldn’t name a single First Amendment right and 43% couldn’t even name freedom of speech as one of those rights.

    A recent “abysmal” ACTA survey cited in the report found that only 20 percent of respondents identified James Madison as the Father of the Constitution, 40 percent of graduates didn’t know Congress has the power to declare war, and 9.6 percent thought that Judge Judy was on the Supreme Court.

    The problem, the report says, is that universities don’t place a high enough priority on studying American history or government.

    “Academic historians are not much interested in constitutional history these days. Historians who write on America’s constitutional past are a vanishing breed,” Gordon Wood, professor of History Emeritus at Brown University, says in the report.

    Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at ACTA, writes in an op-ed for The Washington Times, “Of the top 25 ranked liberal arts colleges in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report, only two require students to take even one course in American history or government: the United States Naval Academy and the United States Military Academy.”

    For example, Bates College requires history majors to take two courses in either Latin America or East Asia history but no course is required on American history or government.

    The Liberal Arts core curriculum for Colgate University, which calls itself, “[o]ne of the most ambitious and elegant general education programs in the country,” requires courses in Legacies of the Ancient World, Challenges of Modernity, Communities and Identities, Scientific Perspectives on the World, and Global Engagements. Missing, again, are required courses on American history.

    At Bowdoin College, three non-euro/U.S. courses are required but may be chosen from over 50 classes ranging from “Sex and the Politics of the Body in Modern India” to “The Courtly Society of Heian Japan,” to “Living in the Sixteenth Century.”

    ACTA says that the only effective therapy for this ignorance is rigorous study and learning. They are calling on every college and university to “require at least one course in the history of America, the workings of its free institutions, and the core documents that illuminate our principles of government.”

    “The way forward is clear. A renewal of civic education can reverse America’s civic deficit and restore widespread awareness of our history and government. It is time for students, parents, colleges and universities, and lawmakers to confront the crisis in civic education,” the report says.

    Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @brianledtke



    Brian Ledtke

    Brian Ledtke

    Campus Reform Intern

    Brian Ledtke is an intern for Campus Reform. Prior to joining Campus Reform, Brian spent 15 months traveling around the world. He has previously worked as a staff writer for The Saginaw NewsThe Grand Rapids Rapidian, and The Grand Valley Lanthorn.

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