Civics Ignorance: A Very Long Track Record of Public School Failure

(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.

9 Responses to Civics Ignorance: A Very Long Track Record of Public School Failure

  1. Brian Kisida says:

    I think the process of framing things as an impending crisis by comparing today to an imaginary idyllic past is done mainly for political purposes. I came across this post recently that holds the recently released Bradley Report somewhat accountable for using this same approach. According to this post, there is little evidence of a decline.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Yes, the hypothesis of a golden age from which we have allegedly fallen is politically useful in that it creates the illusion of an easy solution – we already know what works because we used to do it, and all we have to do now is go back to doing things the way we used to do them. Whereas if the system was always bad, we have to face the prospect of trying new things, which is scarier.

    But I think what we’re looking at here is much more of a genuine intellectual error than a calculated political strategy. I believe that most of the people who speak as though there had been a golden age in civics education (like most of the people who speak as though there had been a golden age in math and reading) really think that there was one. There are a variety of reasons people might be predisposed to fall into this error. Mere nostalgia is a very powerful force by itself. Also there is the tendency to underestimate the time frame in which the results of social movements play out, as well as underestimating the resiliance of civilization (i.e. people think that if the education system had been that bad for that long, surely the country would have collapsed by now). And of course the myth of the golden age gratifies many prejudices and presents many oppotunities to place blame on favored targets (like 1960s radicalism).

  3. Two points:…

    1. Some years ago the sociologist David Reisman recommended that the pre-college curriculum not include Social Studies, as he felt that many teachers would not resist the temptation to indoctrinate students. I see the problem but disagree with his solution. Rather, students, parents, real classroom teachers, and taxpayers would benefit if the State got out of the business of operating schools.

    2. When Chubb and Moe conducted their study of school effectiveness, they used gains on standardized tests of Reading, Science, and Math. They rejected using scores on standardized tests of Social Studies because these scores did not correlate with anything, which is pretty funny if you know a little statistics.

    But then, if the whole point of school is State-worshipful indoctrination and the care and feeding of reliable constituencies of political supporters, it does not realy matter to policy makers what ordinary citizens think.

  4. Sam Lubell says:

    There’s extensive treatment of this in Sam Winburg “Crazy for History,” Journal of American History, March 2004 and in Richard J. Paxton, “Don’t Know Much About History–Never Did .(telephone surveys reveal college students’ lack of historical knowledge). :Phi Delta Kappan 85.4 (Dec 2003) and Dale Whittington, “What Have 17-Year-Olds Known in the Past?,” American Educational Research Journal, vol. 28, 1991

    An even earlier study, “A Study of the Attainments of Pupils in United States History,” by J. Carleton Bell and D. F. McCollum” (Journal of Educational Psychology, issue 8, 1917) from 1917 of Texas students at various ages. Elementary students got 16% of the facts right, high school students 33%, normal school students 43%, and university students 49%.

  5. Greg Forster says:

    Thanks for those citations! It was Sam Wineburg (with an “e”) who was quoted extensively in the Chronicle article I linked to, talking about these past studies.

  6. “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

    That’s a pretty harsh assessment of today’s youth. Except those words were uttered by Socrates in the Fifth Century B.C.

    Sometimes society errs by expecting sixteen year olds to absorb and ascribe great value to information that seems removed from their lives, and that which the adults who criticize them have often had decades more time to evaluate and reinforce. I find teenagers to often have difficulty truly putting events in historical context because they literally haven’t had that much time in their lives to compare data in decades or even centuries.

    Ultimately, our system has survived and thrived regardless of what percentage of students can find St. Louis on a map. Generally, those who can’t end up working for those who can.

  7. Greg Forster says:

    Our system has certainly survived and thrived. Just not as well as it could have. How would the events of the 20th century have been different if our schools taught civics effectively?

    And I would point out that history vindicated Socrates. Within a generation, Athens was conquered and the Athenian experiment in democracy was snuffed out – as a direct result of the poor political judgment of Athens’ citizens. Just because people have bemoaned the failure of civic education in many times and places doesn’t mean civic education has not in fact failed in some times and places. And civic virtue really was failing dramatically in 5th century Athens. Why do you think Socrates found so many followers? It was because they saw he was right.

  8. […] himself “The King of Jazz.” And you can see why students got them mixed up — they look so much alike. (Hat tip to this Wall Street Journal reader for bringing the study back to public […]

  9. Doug Bartlett says:

    I don’t rank knowledge of state capitols, colonies’ names or popular poets among the top concepts missing from today’s civics curriculum. Wouldn’t we prefer that future voters recognize the obfuscative ways which local govts. spend tax money in ways that few folks know, that fewer Media sources consider worth revealing? When did you learn what eminent domain and redevelopment could do? Do you know whether your city officials are like those in Bell, CA? Or whether a maniac has derailed your school district, as happened in Santa Ana, CA? Here’s a story to consider:
    Years back, at my Sheriff’s post academy, instructors laughingly told how a suspect was “wired” to a photocopier, said to be a lie detector. Every time the interviewee spoke, deputies pushed the button which printed out the typed message, “HE IS LYING.” Which parts of the Constitution were involved?
    Get out of the clouds and down into the trenches, if you intend this forum to achieve true reform.

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