“Of that spirit of constitutional morality there is little evidence today and it is this that has made me so pessimistic as to the perpetuity of our form of government,” noted the constitutional scholar James M. Beck. In The American Cause, Russell Kirk wrote that “many Americans are badly prepared for their task of defending their own convictions and interests and institutions against the grim threat of armed ideology.” President Ronald Reagan, in his Farewell Address, offered a similar warning about the eradication of the American spirit and memory. Both Kirk and Reagan were reflecting on the decline in civic education — the understanding of our nation’s history, principles, and government.
The crisis in civic education has escalated nationwide and many students, at all levels of education, demonstrate ignorance in understanding American history and government. Without a clear and basic understanding of American principles and the history of our nation we will not be able to solve the policy problems that confront the nation today. Civic education is necessary for a moral and virtuous republic as well as implementing sound public policies.
A number of studies have appeared recently that demonstrate the decline in civic education. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) has published several studies that clearly prove that our educational system is failing to teach American history, government, economics, and Western Civilization. Students across the nation are graduating from high schools and colleges/universities without even a basic understanding of our heritage and many do not even need to take a history or government course to graduate.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) is also providing groundbreaking research in the alarming decline in civic education. ACTA’s recent report, What will they Learn: A Survey of Core Requirements at our Nation’s Colleges and Universities, illustrates the sad reality of the failure of higher education to each civic education. As an example “77 percent of college seniors do not recognize James Madison as the father of the American Constitution and 78 percent fail to recognize the words of the Gettysburg Address.”
The National Association of Scholars (NAS) issued a similar report, The Vanishing West, 1964-2010: The Disappearance of Western Civilization from the American Undergraduate Curriculum. The NAS report focuses on the decline of Western Civilization courses as well as American history courses required for graduation. The study argues that while Western Civilization and American history courses are on the decline, courses in World history, globalization, and sustainability are on the increase. Many colleges and universities are suffering from the ideologies of globalization, political correctness, multiculturalism, secularism, and relativism. As a consequence, students are not learning about the Constitution, The Federalist Papers, or other crucial aspects of American history and Western Civilization.
The decline in civic education is a moral crisis and is leading the nation down a perilous road.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better informed citizenry.
John Hendrickson is a research analyst at the Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant.