The San Francisco Chronicle bore tidings yesterday of the deepening dummification of America: “Top-flight colleges fail civics, study says.”
The meat of the story is this: An organization you’ve likely never heard of, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, surveyed 14,000 U.S. college students at 50 campuses on their “civic literacy.” The study found 1) that the kids’ level of knowledge of basic facts (such as the century in which the Jamestown colony was founded) is abysmal and 2) that seniors at many colleges, and notably a lot of high-falutin liberal humanist ones like Yale, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, appear to know less about these key civics issues than first-year students at the same colleges. This is alarming. You can tell, because the institute’s report on the survey (which was actually conducted by the University of Connecticut’s department of public policy) is titled “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship.”
It sounds like a great story, and the Chron spun it just the way the institute did. But in their rush to relate the latest evidence of the end of civilization, the Chron seems to have missed a few details about the report and the people who put it out.
First, the reported numbers about performance at the individual colleges are virtually meaningless because the survey authors offer no campus-by-campus margins of error for their samples. The measure the report uses to rank the 50 schools is the difference in scores between freshmen and seniors at the colleges. So, the top-ranked school, what the Chron calls “unpretentious Rhodes College in Memphis,” gets the No. 1 position because its freshmen scored 50.6 percent on the test and its seniors got 62.2 percent; the 11.6 percent change was the highest among the 50 schools; in the survey’s estimation, they got smarter. By contrast, seniors at Johns Hopkins scored 7.3 percent lower than freshmen did; they got stupider.
We’ll overlook the study’s unsupported assertion that curriculum choices at Rhodes and Johns Hopkins and everywhere else are responsible for the change in scores. What we need to know to put the stats in perspective is the plus or minus: the percentage either way that the sample at each campus might vary because of factors like chance or undetected bias in the survey ample. The margin of error probably wouldn’t make the scores at Rhodes and Hopkins go away because the difference in performance is relatively large. But the margin of error would be very important in samples that showed a smaller spread. It happens that the frosh-senior score differential at 31 of the 50 schools was 3 percent or less. Now let’s say the margin of error at each of those campuses was plus or minus 3 percent, the same you get in many political opinion polls. If that’s the case–and we don’t know for sure, since the margin of error is unreported–then the finding about freshman-senior performance at those 31 schools can be summarized in a word: inconclusive. The same word might apply, then, to the entire exercise.
The second problem with taking the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s report and parroting it is the organization’s very public political agenda. It’s in business for one reason: to promote what it deems to be traditional American and Western values and to contest the influence of those (liberals and other academic heretics) who might practice novel approaches to the study of history, political science, economics and other fields. Check the institute’s advice for students choosing colleges. Among the factors the organization says ought to be weighed is “political atmosphere.” Among the red flags students ought to look out for are “speech codes operating under the guise of sexual harassment codes” and classes that might reinterpret traditional views of American culture and history: “A class titled ‘American Revolution’ may neglect the causes of the Revolution, the search for constitutional order, or the sacrifices of the founding generation. Some professors will instead teach the entire period through the lenses of race, class, and gender and claim that the Founders worked only to ensure their own well-being. Such efforts to de-legitimize the Revolution are increasingly common among historians.”
Third, on the face of it, there’s just something odd in the results. The way the survey is spun, a bunch of private, Christian colleges (six of the top nine schools in the study have religious affiliations, including “unpretentious” No. 1 Rhodes) are made to appear paragons of learning. The self-satisfied godless elitists, represented by the likes of the University of Chicago, Yale, MIT, Duke, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins and the universities of Michigan, Virginia, and California, are dens of rampant civic ignorance.
You don’t have to look hard to see how the results have been skewed. Scores at the bottom 20 schools are generally much higher for both freshmen and seniors than scores for the top 10 schools. That’s possible because the measure of success is score “improvement.” So schools whose first-year students chalked up moron-level scores–“‘Pocahontas was’ … uh … ‘D) chief justice and president’!?” — almost can’t help but put something new in the kids’ heads over the course of four years (maybe not that much, though; the average score for the top 10 schools’ freshmen was 37.2 percent; for their seniors, 44.6 percent). The bottom 20 schools, whose first-year students scored much higher (58.7 percent on average) faced more of a challenge in raising student scores and in 16 of 20 cases the survey suggests senior scores were lower. Still, the bottom-20 seniors scored 57.5 percent on average.
Last, there’s the report’s principal conceit: That America’s universities are failing to teach students the basics of civic literacy, and that the trivial increase in student knowledge between the first and final years of college demonstrates that. To do that, it makes an apple-and-oranges comparison between first-year college students and seniors.
Yes, it’s true that students scored low on the institute’s quiz. That’s sad, I imagine, but not shocking. We can go back year after year, decade after decade, to the dawn of the Baby Boom and perhaps beyond to find evidence that America’s kids are ignorant of everything but music, booze, drugs, driving, and sex. At this point, it’s a wonder that anyone knows anything about history, geography, science or math.
The fact is, the report’s conclusion is nearly impossible to assess. On one hand, the survey reports scores for freshmen and seniors who happen to attend the same school at the same time, not the improvement or decline of individual students or even individual graduating classes. On the other hand, only a sample of six quiz questions has been made public. Thus, it’s hard to know about which key points of the glorious panorama of American free-range democracy today’s kids are clueless, whether the quiz is loaded with arcane twaddle only a doctoral candidate could love, or whether today’s students are any more in the dark about civics than the generations that spawned them.
And as to the “crisis” in civic knowledge: It would be nice if everyone could talk about our history and institutions in an informed way. Instead of putting all the burden on colleges and students, though, why don’t we get respected public figures–the president, say–to make it part of their job to educate us all on sacred principles like the separation of powers, the value of a free and independent press, the importance of prohibiting unreasonable searches, and the need for open and honest dealing in government. Our officials might start a website with all these crucial lessons for us. Or they could even try to teach by example.