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Monday, December 20, 2010

How Educated are our College Students and Office Holders?

“There is nothing so stupid as the educated man if you get him off the thing he was educated in.” — Will Rogers

Conventional wisdom holds that there is a strong connection between how much people know and how much college education they receive — the more college, the more knowledge. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s research, however, demonstrates that on most campuses, this seemingly obvious correlation is quite marginal where knowledge of America’s history and institutions is concerned.

In 2008 the Intercollegiate Studies Institute held a conference at the National Press Club to release the results of their latest survey of civic literacy and higher education. The title was appropriately blunt, “Failing our Students, Failing America: Holding Colleges Accountable for Teaching America’s History and Institutions.” The basis was a survey ISI commissioned from the University of Connecticut’s Dept. of Public Policy. It was given to over 14,000 college freshmen and seniors, and assessed their knowledge of American history and government, America and the world, and the market economy. The basis of analysis was simple: compare the scores of the freshmen at a school to those of the seniors in order to see how four years of undergraduate education had improved their civic knowledge.

The results were grim. No school could claim even a “C” average for its seniors. Harvard, whose senior class performed the best, garnered a “D+.” Even worse, college, on average, hinders the acquisition of civic knowledge, and the most expensive and prestigious schools often decreased their students’ understanding of basic American civics. Of the 50 schools surveyed, the bottom five included Princeton, Duke, Yale, and Cornell, all of which saw seniors post lower scores than their freshmen did. Harvard was the best of the Ivy League, boosting scores from 63.6% to 69.6%.

The top five schools were Eastern Connecticut State University (with a gain of 9.7% in scores), Marian College (+9.4%), Murray State University (+9.1%), Concordia University (+9%), and St. Cloud State University (+8.6%). To be sure, the more prestigious schools generally had higher scores from both freshman and seniors. But the evidence is clear that, for example, Yale students outperformed their Pfeiffer University. counterparts because of excellence before college. Yale attendees lost basic civic knowledge (-3.1%), while Pfeiffer University students gained (+8.25%). What’s the point of the best high school kids in the nation going to Yale when it will take them from a “C-” to a “D” over four years? Pfeiffer might be getting third-rate students, but at least they’re learning. (Note, the + numbers indicate percentages above the average score)

This study controlled for different course concentrations not by asking about majors, but by asking students how many courses they had taken in civics (American history, economics, and the like). This allowed the researchers to see how scores improved (or didn’t) as a result of civics courses. Once again, Yale, Duke, Princeton, and Cornell took 4 of the 5 lowest spots. Students at Cornell fared the worst, with the average student losing 1.8% on the test for each civics course taken. Concordia University was the best, with students gaining 3.72% for each civics course.

As dramatic as some of these results are (go to Yale, lose knowledge!), the problem isn’t just in those schools where seniors scored lower than the freshman. College is supposed to draw the best and brightest for further instruction, and schools love to proclaim that they are producing better citizens. But for many schools, the rate of knowledge acquisition in the undergraduate years was slower than it had been previously. At the University of Pennsylvania, students were barely nudged, from a 62.7% to a 63.5%. Random guessing would score 20% on the multiple choice test. So we can assume that 1st through 12th grades increased student scores by at least 42.7%. Four more years of education at the University of Pennsylvania added only another 0.8%, even though the “D” average of incoming freshman left plenty of room for upward movement.

The average score for all 2,508 Americans taking the following test was 49%; college educators scored 55%. Can you do better? Questions were drawn from past ISI surveys, as well as other nationally recognized exams. You can take the survey yourself by clicking here. The questions are general in nature and any high school graduate should be able to well — you would think.

Americans spend billions on higher education. Parents save to pay for their children, state and federal governments spend billions on universities, Americans owe tens of billions of dollars in student loans, and donors give billions in charitable donations to schools. But this doesn’t produce even a minimally informed citizenry — people who will vote. In fact, the study found that the more tuition costs, the less student scores improved. Clearly, there needs to be accountability, and it is to be hoped that ISI’s study will help provide that. The results have been released to the schools as well as the media, in the hope that interested parties will take action.

The average score for all 2,508 Americans taking the following test was 49%; college educators scored 55%. Can you do better? Questions were drawn from past ISI surveys, as well as other nationally recognized exams.

What’s even more disturbing is the test was given to those claiming to hold or have held elected office — politicians who purport to be our leaders and should be knowledgeable of our Constitution, government and history. On the whole they did worse than the average citizen.

Here are a few results from the office holders who took the test
  • Seventy-nine percent of those who have been elected to government office do not know the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion for the U.S.
  • Thirty percent do not know that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Twenty-seven percent cannot name even one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  • Forty-three percent do not know what the Electoral College does. One in five thinks it either “trains those aspiring for higher political office” or “was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates.”
  • Fifty-four percent do not know the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Thirty-nine percent think that power belongs to the president, and 10% think it belongs to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  • Only 32% can properly define the free enterprise system, and only 41% can identify business profit as “revenue minus expenses.”
To me these percentages are appalling. To have elected office holders scoring lower than the average citizen is inexcusable. This is borne out by the “man of the street” interviews conducted by TV personalities like Jay Leno and Sean Hannity. People are asked questions like: Who is the Vice President, Who is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Name the Speaker of the House, and what rights does the Second Amendment protect? Most people on the street cannot answerer these simple questions. They do much worse when asked questions about the function of the Federal Reserve or who has the power to levy taxes or declare war. It is amazing how uninformed the folks interviewed are — especially the ones claiming a college degree. In fact it frightens me that these same people are the ones who vote in our elections.

I do not have a college degree but I did get a pretty good high school education some 55 years ago when schools were far different than they are today. History, civics, government and geography were taught honestly by teachers that did not have liberal agendas or were restrained by bureaucratic regulations and rules. In our history classes we were taught about the founding fathers and our constitution not just about civil rights and social justice. Our civics classes focused on government and how it works, not on homosexuality, diversity and gender equality. Geography was about the country and world we live in, not about global warming.  Our report cards were simple. You received letter grades not long work sheets loaded with gobbledygook. Test and quizzes were graded given letter grades and errors were marked in red pencil. Terms like “nice try”, “you’re doing well” or “improvement needed” were not used. The teacher told you where you were wrong and what you needed to do to improve your grades. If you received an “A” and one of your fellow classmates got a “D” so be it — teachers didn’t worry about his or her “feelings” and self esteem.

Part of the problem might be that the consumers of higher education want advanced career prospects more than civic literacy. I believe most students go to college so they may earn more money after graduation, not because they are interested in the life of the mind. Many view universities as nothing more than expensive, glorified job training firms. Those presenting the report agreed that this was indeed part of the problem. The very idea of “consumers” of education is anathema to the traditional mission of the university — and the academics who are tenured there. Those responsible for higher education must stand firm and insist that they have a mission to produce knowledgeable citizens as well as qualified employees. Click here to see the results  of the online test , you will them amazing

You can read more at my blog post "What's Wrong with our Government Education System

Buy the way I took the test and I got all 33 questions correct. This is not bragging, it’s merely to show that you don’t need a college education to know your country’s history and how your government and economy works. When Sarah Palin referred to the Boston tea party as having taken place in 1773 she was blasted by the left-wing media for not knowing enough about American history. Many “elite” journalists and commentators claimed Palin was wrong, it took place in 1776 — Sarah was right and they were ignorant.

You can read mt test results by clicking here.

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