According to a recent study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, fewer than half of all Americans can successfully name all three branches of the federal government. Nearly half of Americans believe the phrase “separation between church and state” is found in the Constitution. Even more shockingly, almost a quarter of Americans believe that authority for American foreign policy is shared between Congress and the United Nations.
Overall, the average score on a test that included basic questions about America’s history and government was a mere 49 percent. Most disturbing, though, was the abysmal performance of graduates of many of America’s most prestigious universities. Nationwide, no college could average better than a D+ for its graduates’ civic literacy. Philadelphia neighbor Penn managed a disappointing 63.5 percent.
Even graduates of UC Berkeley, with its tradition of radical political activism, could answer only 56 percent of the questions correctly.
How can America’s most prestigious institutions of higher education allow their students to graduate without even a rudimentary sense of American history?
Part of the fault lies with America’s high schools. Ideally, most American civic education should occur at the high school level. The vast majority of students, however, are emerging from their high schools with diplomas in hand but without the prerequisite knowledge that supposedly comes along with them.
As easy as it would be for colleges to simply pass blame for their graduates’ civic ineptitude back to high schools, colleges themselves still bear much of the responsibility.
In American society, a college degree is widely regarded as the mark of an “educated” person. However, many schools no longer have a clearly defined baseline of exactly what constitutes an “educated” person.
For example, at Penn, students have the choice of a wide variety of narrow courses that each fulfill the requirement of a broad “theme.” A closer examination of these vaguely defined “themes,” however, quickly yields insight as to why so many of its graduates lack a commanding grasp of American civic history.
The “History and Tradition” theme can be fulfilled by taking “Intro to Archaeology.” Similarly, the “Humanities and Social Sciences” requirement can be fulfilled by “Intro to Folklore.” The requirement for “Cultural Diversity in the U.S.” can even be filled by the “History of Sexuality.”
Though the freedom these choices give the students sounds laudable, the result is an institution without a coherent base of knowledge all students must acquire in order to graduate.
Of course, the issue isn’t confined to Penn. Higher education at all levels is plagued by the watering-down of educational requirements. As college admissions have become more and more competitive, colleges themselves have competed to offer more and more “individualized” and “open-minded” curriculums of study. These efforts can have hugely positive results, but only if they don’t compromise an institution’s academic integrity.
The curriculum at Villanova is mildly more consistent. Most students must take introductory courses in philosophy, English and theology, in addition to two semesters of Augustine and Culture Seminar. However, depending on the college, some students aren’t obligated to take any history courses at all.
Villanova’s academic reputation has grown immensely over the last 20 years, but it is vital that the University stay focused on its core mission of instructing its students in a true liberal arts education.
As further refinements to the curriculums are made, special effort should be made to ensure all Villanova students have a concrete grasp of our nation, its history and our heritage.
With economic and political issues more complicated than ever, there is an essential need for a well-informed and educated public. The prosperity of a democracy depends on the choices made by its voters, and it is unreasonable to expect the American electorate to make sound decisions about this country’s future without an adequate understanding of our nation’s past.
John Elizandro is a freshman from Radnor, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]