(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Around these parts we sometimes discuss the failure of civic education in government schools. Our focus is usually this body of research, consistently showing that private school students have stronger democratic values than public school students. And of course Jay has more recently done some pathbreaking research on how civic values are embodied (or not) in public school names (which seem to have undergone a dramatic change in the past 50 years) and public school mascots (which do not appear to have done so).
But of course most people come at this issue from a different angle, bewailing the results of the breakdown of civic education in government schools – our high school graduates don’t know when the Civil War happened, etc. – without saying much useful about the cause.
Well, in response to a recent article on the subject, yesterday’s Wall Street Journal included an intriguing letter to the editor drawing our attention to a 1943 study of the civic knowledge of 6,000 incoming freshmen at the nation’s top colleges. According to the letter, over half did not know the dates of the Civil War and could not locate St. Louis on a map, and nearly two-thirds mistook Walt Whitman for bandleader Paul Whiteman.
Separated at birth?
The study doesn’t appear to be on the web, but I did find this Chronicle of Higher Education article that cites some more findings from it. Apparently only 6 percent were able to name the original 13 colonies. The article also cites a 1917 study that found widespread ignorance of historical items that history teachers said “every student should know” at all levels from elementary school to college.
(Digression: The 1943 study was conducted by historian Allan Nevins of Columbia. While searching for it online, I stumbled across the fact that Nevins is widely credited as the founder of the field of oral history, having been the first to systematically seek out and record on tape, for the use of future scholars, the recollections of persons who had witnessed events of historical significance. Fascinating! Don’t say you never learned anything from Jay P. Greene’s Blog.)
So it seems that on civics education, as on the subject of reading and math scores, the reason we have an outrageous and unacceptable failure of outcomes is not because our schools have undergone a recent decline but because our schools have a consistent, very-long-term record of shocking underperformance. To quote an author who used to be a leading scholar of the history of education, there was no golden age.
What to make of this? To judge from the Chronicle article, some seem to think that we should find it comforting rather than all the more disturbing to know that the failure of civics education is not new. Clearly it does mean that civic ignorance is not a sign that the Republic is in immediate jeopardy of an existential crisis, and the overheated rhetoric to that effect needs to be toned down. On the other hand, the long-term damage done by civic ignorance is going to be all the worse and all the more difficult to repair. It appears that the failure of public schools to teach civic knowledge and values is not the result of a recent change that might be attributed to transitory influences (such as 1960s radicalism) but a fundamental flaw at the heart of our educational institutions. I find the latter thought more daunting than the former, not less.
But there is hope. As I mentioned at the outset, private schools do a better job of civics education. That gives us a clue as to what that fundamental flaw in our educational institutions is (they’re a government monopoly) and how we can go about setting it right.