October 6, 2006

U of C falls short on civic education, says survey

American colleges are failing to educate students about U.S. history, government, and the market economy, according to a report released by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) last week.

The 2005 study gave 60 multiple-choice questions to some 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities nationwide to measure “civic knowledge.” ISI commissioned the survey, and the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy conducted it.

“We were flabbergasted that there has never been any effort from higher education to conduct such an assessment on how much students learn in college,” said Michael Ratliff, a senior vice president at ISI, a nonprofit conservative think tank.

The ISI regards civic awareness as critical because “learning about practice of democracy and shaping of America is important basic knowledge,” Ratliff said.

The report ranked institutions by comparing senior scores to freshman scores at each school. Final scores were generated by subtracting the mean scores of freshman from the mean score of seniors.

The University of Chicago ranked 37th with a final score of -0.3 percent. The mean test score was 64.2 percent for seniors and 64.5 percent for freshmen. Though the University’s -0.3 final score was low on the list, the mean results for seniors and freshmen were among the higher scores.

Rhodes College of Memphis, Tennessee, topped the rankings with a score of +11.6 percent. Among the Ivy League institutions, Princeton University ranked the highest at 18th, with Harvard University ranking 25th and Yale University ranking the lowest at 44th.

“Knowledge of civics and history are interpretative questions, not objective. I’m skeptical about this report and the nature of the questions [on this test],” said Amy Dru Stanley, associate professor in history and chair of the American Civilization Core sequence.

“In general, there’s a crisis in historical literacy in the U.S.,” Stanley said. “But it’s not a particular crisis at the University of Chicago.”

Of the 60 questions on the survey, most students correctly answered those pertaining to 20th century American history. The three questions that yielded the highest percentage of correct answers involved the Cold War (83 percent), Martin Luther King (83 percent), and Brown v. Board of Education (82 percent).

Most students faltered on conceptual topics, with 76 percent of respondents answering a question on the Monroe Doctrine incorrectly.

The ISI has not released all 60 questions on the survey, though a sample is available on its website. The Institute plans to administer the test annually.

“The strengths of our offerings are that the Core and the concentrations enable students to think broadly about meaning and causality rather than facts that would enable one to play American trivial pursuit,” Stanley said.

Last year, a total of 236 students took the American Civilization course, which focuses on U.S. history, to fulfill the College’s civilization requirement.

“It’s a pretty popular course,” said Constantin Fasolt, master of the College Social Sciences Division and professor of history.

The course is usually capped for fall and winter due to the large number of interested students, Stanley said.

The questionnaire was administered to both American and international students, raising questions about the survey’s accuracy for schools such as the University of Chicago, which has a student population that is 10 percent foreign.

The ISI said both domestic and international students should be surveyed for two reasons.

“A great number of international students [who go to college in the U.S.] end up living in the U.S. and therefore will be American citizens,” Ratliff said. “Secondly, if international students are returning to their home countries, understanding U.S. history will facilitate international relations when they take this knowledge back with them.”

Moreover, Ratliff said the test results did not change significantly when international student data was removed.

“Understanding democracy is something everyone needs because college students will all be citizens one day,” said Ratliff.

“Our education does enable students to be good citizens,” Stanley said. “College isn’t the place to rectify civics knowledge, which should be imparted from lower school on. College should enable students to think about issues on a broader cultural and international context.”