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Dorm Daze

A new study shows students often know less about our government after four years of college than they did before.

12:00 AM, Oct 6, 2006 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
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Five percent of those surveyed were foreign nationals, and students from all majors were included in the sample, such as those possibly majoring in engineering, nursing, architecture, or the hard sciences, where requirements for civics courses are scant. Is an astrophysics student from India studying at MIT supposed to know that Social Security takes the largest chunk out of the U.S. federal budget (an actual test question)? Rear Admiral Michael Ratliff, executive director of the literacy program, countered that "engineers will be citizens too." It was also noted that these factors were controlled for.

The argument that students at more elite schools start off with more knowledge than the average student, and therefore won't show as much improvement, was raised, and this was overwhelmingly proven true by the statistics. Freshmen at 14 of the 16 aforementioned elite schools scored in the 60s, with only two of the remaining thirty-five schools scoring in this range and ten scoring in the 20s and 30s. Of the thirty non-elite schools that saw an increase in scores among seniors, only five of them reached the 60 percent mark, while 10 of the 14 elite schools still remained above 60 percent. Nevertheless, a mark in the 60s is nothing to brag about, and, as Ratliff stated, "To whom much is given, much should be expected."

Since this is the first study of its kind, there's no way to definitively state that these findings represent a decline in the quality of civic education over the past few decades. However, as Professor Christopher Barnes, the director of project development at the University of Connecticut, pointed out, since higher participation is linked with higher levels of civic knowledge, research by individuals such as Robert Putnam indicating a higher level of civic participation several decades ago could lead one to conclude that there has been a decrease in civic knowledge as well.

For the next step, UConn's department is currently surveying students and plans to release data annually and publish their findings in academic journals. Former Deputy Education Secretary Eugene Hickok, who is a member of ISI's National Civic Literacy board, called for colleges to reevaluate the content of their civics courses and their curriculum requirements and for parents, students, and university boards to hold the institutions accountable, though he wasn't advocating a federally mandated assessment.

While they're at it, perhaps they ought to throw in extra math courses too: A study released in January by the American Institutes for Research found that more than half of college students couldn't balance a checkbook or calculate a restaurant tip. The call for an improvement in civic education shouldn't eclipse the reality of the equally dismal state of hard science knowledge. It's high time colleges at all levels make sure students know the fundamentals--and retain them throughout their college careers. Still, in a day and age where multicultural, anti-Western, and diversity-sensitive courses rule the roost at one of the last thriving havens for liberalism, it shouldn't be a tremendous revelation that the students who have to endure four years of exposure to this emerge none the more enlightened of the founding, heritage, and rich history of our great nation.

Whitney Blake is an editorial assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, where she is currently completing a yearlong fellowship sponsored by the Collegiate Network, which is administered by the ISI. Both are separately incorporated non-profits.