Civic Illiteracy Rife Among College Graduates

    Dear Editor,

    Most people, including college graduates, are civically illiterate and elected officials know even less than most citizens about civic topics such as history, government and economics. More than 2,500 randomly selected Americans took a basic 33-question test from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute on civic literacy and more than 1,700 people failed, with an average score of 49 percent, or an “F.” Elected officials scored even lower than the general public — with an average score of 44 percent — and only 0.8 percent (or 21) of all surveyed earned an “A.” Even more startling is the fact that over twice as many people know Paula Abdul was a judge on “American Idol” than know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

    The blame and solution for civic illiteracy both lie at the doorstep of the nation’s colleges. Colleges, as encouraged by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, should prepare citizen leaders by teaching America’s history, key texts and institutions as the current impact of college in advancing civic knowledge is minimal. The average score among those who ended their formal education with a bachelor’s degree is 57 percent — or an “F,” which is only 13 percentage points higher than the average score of 44 percent earned by those who hold high school diplomas.

    According to the survey results, 30 percent of elected officials do not know that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence and 20 percent falsely believe that the Electoral College “was established to supervise the first presidential debates.” Almost 40 percent of all respondents falsely believe the president has the power to declare war; 40 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree do not know business profit equals revenue minus expenses; only 54 percent with a bachelor’s degree correctly define free enterprise as a system in which individuals create, exchange and control goods and resources; 20.7 percent of Americans falsely believe that the Federal Reserve can increase or decrease government spending.

    Engaging in frequent conversations about public affairs, reading about current events and history and participating in advanced civic activities is greater than the gain from an expensive bachelor’s degree alone. Moreover, elected officials, administrators, trustees, faculty, donors, taxpayers and parents must re-evaluate collegiate curricula and standards for accountability to encourage more courses in American history, politics, economics and other core areas and ensure elected officials link college appropriations to real measures of civic or overall learning.

    — Melissa Torra
    Representative, Intercollegiate Studies Institute

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