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Student Ignorance of Civics Is Nothing New

American kids' mastery of the facts every citizen ought to know has never been impressive.

by
Greg Forster

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October 4, 2008 - 12:30 am
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You’ve probably heard statistics like this before: in a survey of 6,000 incoming freshmen at the nation’s top colleges, half didn’t know when the Civil War happened. Half couldn’t locate St. Louis on a map. Only six percent could name the original 13 colonies. And almost two-thirds — remember, this is among students going to top colleges — almost two-thirds got a famous 19th century author mixed up with a contemporary pop music icon.

It’s a familiar story, and it’s been in the news again lately: our kids don’t know civics.

At this point in an article on this subject, the standard procedure is to bewail the decline of education. For some, the decline in civics knowledge reflects the takeover of 1960s radicalism: love of country and respect for its values and institutions are no longer cool. For others, it simply reflects the decline of education generally: schools can’t teach math and reading any more, so why do we expect them to teach civics effectively?

But hold your horses. There’s been no decline.

The statistics I cited in the first paragraph are from a study conducted in 1943. The famous 19th-century author mentioned in the last sentence was Walt Whitman; two-thirds of freshmen at top colleges mixed him up with band leader Paul Whiteman, who declared 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 attention.)

It gets worse. Way back in 1917, researchers composed an American history test including items that history teachers thought “every student should know.” The test was thought appropriate to administer to students as early as elementary school, since it contained what the researchers called “the simplest and most obvious facts of American history.” They gave it to students at all levels from elementary school to college, to see what would happen.

The college students scored 49 percent.

And when we look at these past surveys of civics knowledge among college students, we have to remember that a lot fewer people went to college back then. It was the top performers — the cream of the national crop — who thought Walt Whitman was the King of Jazz.

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, there’s no evidence that math and reading skills have gone down, either. As far back as we have reliable measurements (which, unfortunately, is only back to 1970), math and reading outcomes for 12th graders are flat. So are graduation rates.

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