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Civic Literacy and Civic Engagement

American Citizenship

Though Constitution Day has come and gone (it was September 17), it may still be appropriate to honor the enactment of our Founding charter by looking into the question of “civic literacy” and “civic engagement.” By the first, I mean knowledge largely about American history and political institutions. The second is meant to denote participating in the political process, passively by voting and actively by contributing to and working on campaigns, trying to influence others’ votes, attending political events, contacting officials, signing petitions, and writing letters to the editor.

Granted, civic engagement could be defined more broadly to include things like volunteering at a homeless shelter, coaching peewee soccer, playing in an amateur musical group, and like activities, but I want to focus on activities connected with republican self-government. This isn’t to imply that community involvement and volunteering are less worthy than voting or writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper (or a comment on a political blog like this one, for that matter). And I’d be willing to bet that the explicitly political activities I’m focusing on are positively correlated with the many kinds of non-political activities Americans jointly engage in. But the data I have deals with political activities.

Here’s what the studies show: The more civic knowledge a person has, the more he or she will be civically engaged. By contrast, having a bachelor’s degree only has a positive correlation with one facet (and that the least active) of this kind of civic engagement, namely voting. If you want people to engage actively in self-government, there is no substitute for education in the kinds of issues with which they’ll deal and the kinds of institutions in which they’ll participate. A college education, without any particular focus, does not serve this purpose. Indeed, as I’ll discuss, most colleges don’t do a particularly good job at this kind of civic education.

Let me first touch on two measures of American political participation.

Turnout in the last four presidential elections has ranged from 54 percent (in 2000) to 62 percent (in 2008). This range has persisted since the 1930s, despite a substantial increase in the proportion of our population receiving a college education. Midterm elections have significantly lower turnout, while purely state and local elections attract still fewer voters.

In other words, even the least demanding form of “civic engagement” involves at best 60 percent of the population, and then only in presidential elections.

Other, more active forms involve a significantly smaller proportion of the population, as can be seen in these figures taken from a 2013 Pew Research Center report:

Worked with fellow citizens to solve a problem in your community 35 percent
Attended a political meeting on local, town, or school affairs 22 percent
Been an active member of a group that tries to influence public policy or gov’t, not including a political party 13 percent
Attended a political rally or speech 10 percent
Worked or volunteered for a political party or candidate 7 percent
Attended an organized protest 6 percent
Total (“yes” to any of the activities listed above) 48 percent

From one point of view, these results may not be a problem. If it’s the case that the best informed people are the ones who are most likely to vote, then our elections are “high quality” affairs, reflecting the informed consent of those who take the most trouble to inform themselves. They take their civic responsibilities seriously and have thereby demonstrated that they are, so to speak, “entitled” to exercise their franchise. Ill-informed people, the argument goes, would just make bad choices; they can be easily manipulated by clever campaigns. Their so-called self-government is just a mask for clever elites working through them.

This argument takes seriously the old “aristocratic” argument on behalf of elections, which presumes that discriminating voters vote discriminately, rendering informed judgments about candidates and policies and choosing wisely those who would best serve the public good. (By contrast, a truly “democratic” means of choosing officeholders is to pull names out of a hat; everyone has the same chance of being chosen.)

But there are, I think, at least two problems with it in our current context, however much I would like for our elections to be high-minded, civic-spirited affairs in which citizens devoted to the public good chose their best peers to assume the awesome responsibilities associated with holding office.

The first comes from Thomas Hobbes: “a plain husbandman is more prudent in affairs of his own house than a privy councilor in the affairs of another man.” Each of us, in other words, is the best judge of his or her own interests. To the degree that our political life requires judgments about what is best for each of us as individuals and perhaps heads of households, there is at least a case to be made on behalf of the sober prudence of the ordinary person. I may not know best how to deal with complicated foreign policy challenges, but I surely can judge whether I am helped or harmed by particular policies. (Well, perhaps: even good judgments about my own circumstances require “enlightened” self-interest, which may on occasion be asking a lot.) If, nevertheless, this argument bears some weight, wouldn’t we want to encourage as many “informed judges” as possible to participate in choosing their representatives?

The other problem has to do with the character of our electoral politics. Contemporary campaigns hardly serve to educate the electorate and elevate the tone of our politics. Sound-bites, 30-second spots, and partial information hardly serve to inform our judgments in ways that redound to the benefit of the body politic. Those of us who participate, in other words, have no business congratulating ourselves about the quality of the process in which we are participating. The self-congratulation is really more like a self-delusion.

But regardless of the quality of our civic engagement (arguably low, for the most part), the quantity is also not terribly impressive.

It stands to reason that to the degree that civic literacy improves the quantity of engagement, it would also improve the quality. One problem is that there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that our civic literacy isn’t all that impressive. A second problem is that the institutions that ought to be cultivating civic knowledge are not doing a very good job of it.

Let me give you some more numbers here, first about the overall scope of our civic literacy problem and then about what our educational institutions are or aren’t doing about it.

Earlier this year, the Annenberg Public Policy Center asked 1,416 adults a number of simple questions about the structure of American national government. Here are the depressing results:

  • While 72 percent of the respondents claimed they could name at least one branch of government, only 65 percent actually could; only 36 percent could name all three.
  • Only 27 percent knew that a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress was required to override a presidential veto.
  • 47 percent could properly indicate the significance of a 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision; 25 percent were honest enough to say that they didn’t know. Another 29 percent wrongly assessed its significance.
  • 38 percent knew that the Republicans currently controlled the House of Representatives; the same percentage (the same respondents?) knew that the Democrats controlled the Senate.

I’ve seen Youtube clips of people with video cameras going around stymieing men and women on the street with simple questions about current events. I used to think the clips had been edited to make unrepresentative samples of respondents look ridiculous. I’m no longer sure any doctoring was necessary.

In the spring of 2008, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute administered a somewhat more elaborate civic knowledge test to a random sample of 2,508 Americans. More than 71 percent of the respondents failed, and less than 11 percent earned a grade of C or higher (correctly answering more than 70 percent of the questions). The average score of high school graduates was a 44, of college graduates a 57, of master’s recipients a 64, and of doctoral degree holders a 72. That is to say, college graduates flunked this test. Our best educated people (Ph.D.’s and, I presume, M.D.’s) could do no better than a C minus. This is not good for the prospect of civic engagement to the extent that it depends upon civic literacy. Nor does it speak at all well for the quality of the knowledge that informs whatever engagement takes place.

We seem not to know enough to govern ourselves.

Similar, slightly more extensive tests administered to 14,000 college students in 2005 and 2006 yielded comparable results, with students on average earning F’s (53 in 2005 and 54 in 2006). The highest average score earned on the 2006 test was that of Harvard seniors—69.56, generously rounded to a 70, or a C minus. Other well-known schools in the top 10 included Washington and Lee (67), Yale (66), Brown (66), UVA (65), Penn (63), Duke (63), and Bowdoin (63).

Some typical questions on this multiple choice test:

  • What are the three branches of government?
  • Name one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  • Who is the commander in chief of the U.S. military?

Some were harder, some easier, but most reflected the kind of background knowledge a citizen who participates in self-government should have. Those who possess such knowledge would begin to be able to distinguish good arguments from bad, to know where political accountability belongs, and to understand how history informs the choices we confront. One wouldn’t expect everyone to get a perfect score, but in a country where the college-educated, comprising roughly a quarter of the population, are by definition a sort of elite, a poor performance would seem to be highly problematical.

As far as civic literacy is concerned, a college education generally seems to add little value. One detailed measurement of precisely how little was the aforementioned ISI study. The institute tested not only college seniors but also freshmen. The conclusion:

Overall among the 50 colleges and universities tested, student knowledge increased a discouraging 1.5 percent. Freshmen, on average, begin their undergraduate years with very little civic knowledge, scoring a low 51.7 percent, and they end up knowing little more, scoring 53.2 percent as seniors.

The 2005 results described here were essentially replicated in 2006.

To be sure, one can take a somewhat more fine-grained look at the data: seniors at some schools seem to gain quite a bit over four years, while others actually seem to lose ground. Thus in the 2005 test, Rhodes College seniors gained 11.6 percent over their younger colleagues, while Johns Hopkins seniors actually scored 7.3 percent worse than their first year counterparts. In 2006, Eastern Connecticut State University added the most value (9.65 percent), while Cornell brought up the rear and, like Hopkins the previous year, showed “negative learning” (by scoring 4.95 percent worse than the Cornell freshmen), with Yale, Duke, and Princeton making almost as dismal a showing.

The most charitable explanation one could muster is that in lots of colleges and universities there is relatively little focus on the kinds of information the various ISI instruments test. Perhaps professors assume that students already know the basic facts, a logical assumption for students at relatively elite institutions. Rather than go over the basics of American history and government yet again, repeating what was covered (was it?) in high school, they focus on more specialized and hence presumably more demanding subjects. Or colleges and universities, again assuming that civic literacy is largely the responsibility of high schools, permit students to pursue their interests and majors at the expense of essentially introductory coursework in American history and government. This may satisfy students as consumers, but doesn’t do much for our country.

There is likely some evidence for both propositions. Thus, for example, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni surveyed graduation requirements at a wide array of American colleges and universities. Among the requirements ACTA was looking for were survey courses in American history and politics and a basic course in economics; specialized courses in those fields did not satisfy ACTA’s fastidious requirements, nor did courses that could be taken as part of a cafeteria menu of options. Of all the institutions surveyed, only 23 earned an “A” rating. Looking at four random states, a majority of colleges in Georgia and Texas required the American history/politics course (thanks largely to laws and regulations imposed by public authorities on state institutions), while less than 40 percent in California did (and those mostly the less elite Cal State schools) and only two out of forty in Massachusetts did. Generally speaking, the more selective the institution, the less likely it would have the basic requirements ACTA sought.

Thus for the most part, so-called good schools don’t make their good students take American government or history survey courses. To take one example (hardly the most egregious): My son, to satisfy his (pretty good) university’s common curriculum requirements in “understanding human social interaction,” could take a course in American Politics and a two semester American history survey; or he could take (for example) an anthropology course on “Pirates, Merchants, and Marines” a course on the sociology of sex roles, and a religion course on “Death and Beyond.” These latter courses may be very interesting and very challenging, but they won’t help him remind himself of what he already knows about American history and politics, let alone add to it.

The aforementioned finding of “negative learning” on the part of good students at good schools suggests that students who start at a relatively high level of knowledge can, in essence, forget some of it if they aren’t compelled or encouraged to continue using it. Here again the authors of the ISI report, and I will leave anonymous the institution they were describing:

On some survey questions, the loss of basic knowledge about America among . . . students was startling. . . . Seniors, for example, trailed . . . freshmen by 31% in knowing that Marbury v. Madison established the power of judicial review, by 17% in knowing that Fort Sumter came before Appomattox, and by 28% in knowing that the Monroe Doctrine discouraged new colonies in the Western Hemisphere.

Of course, one could question the “relevance” of these factual details for contemporary American civic life. Students might defend themselves by saying that they’ll never “use” this information. Perhaps not. In any case, if they don’t know it, they surely won’t use it, even if they need it. There’s a good argument for their needing it, and it’s this: In general, the more you know, the more active as a citizen you’re likely to be. In other words, the more you know, the more you’re likely to use what you know.

I often contend that a liberal education is an education befitting a free human being, one who can think for himself or herself and who is as unlikely as possible to be, in effect, a “slave” to an ideology or a gull for a charlatan’s argument. Thinking for oneself, a prerequisite for this kind of human freedom, is no mere technical skill. It isn’t just about having a sharp, logical mind. It requires some content, some familiarity with the kinds of arguments people make and with the facts and narratives on the basis of which they make them. In other words, a liberal education that has as its goal self-government (in our case, “republican self-government”) requires some knowledge of the republic in which our self-governing takes place.

The steps to take to remedy our astonishing lack of civic literacy are pretty obvious. First, we should examine our curricula to see whether they have enough appropriate “American” content. The authors of the aforementioned reports don’t contend that everyone should take basic survey courses in American history and government. Some students—those whose scores are down in the 40s, for example—may need that. Others may well be ready for courses that are advanced enough to be challenging but not so specialized that they can proceed without any reference to the broader context of American history and politics.

So, yes to a course on Civil War and Reconstruction, and yes to a course on contemporary U.S. foreign policy, but probably no to a course on the history of American prostitution from 1900 to the present. I don’t mean to say that the latter course has no place in the college curriculum, but I don’t think that such a course should satisfy an American history requirement.

Second, quantity matters. The more courses that are taken, especially when they’re coherently related to one another, the more aggregate civic learning there is.

Colleges and universities talk a lot about civic engagement, with centers and programs everywhere you look. I’ve argued here that that engagement can’t proceed and indeed makes no sense without civic literacy, cultivated just as systematically and programmatically as the public-spirited action that would be its consequence. Some of my colleagues understand this, but, alas, too many do not.

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