Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Civic literacy

Pete Du Pont calls attention to this report showing an astonishingly low level of civic literacy among American college students. I haven’t been able to download the whole report yet, but Du Pont summarizes the results:

As for the 50 colleges that participated in the program, the best-scoring students were not from the institutions one might expect. Rhodes College, Colorado State University and Calvin College were the top three, with senior students averaging between 9.5 and 11.6 percentage points higher than freshmen.


At the other end of the scale were 16 schools that showed "negative learning"--that is, seniors scored lower than freshmen. Cornell, UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins were the worst three, their seniors scoring between 3.3 and 7.3 percentage points worse than their freshmen. And on the negative list were some other very prestigious universities: Williams, Georgetown, Yale, Duke and Brown.


How did these educational failures come to pass? ISI concludes that "students don’t learn what colleges don’t teach." In other words, in colleges where students must take more courses in American history they do better on the test, outperforming schools where fewer courses were completed. Seniors at the top test-scoring colleges "took an average of 4.2 history and political science courses, while seniors at the two lowest-ranked colleges . . . took an average of 2.9 history and political science courses." Similarly, higher ranked colleges spent more time on homework, 20 hours a week at fourth-ranked Grove City College and 14 or 15 at low-ranked Georgetown and Berkeley.

Here are the full rankings, for those of you who care about such things. Kudos to our friends at Rhodes, whose students registered the greatest increase over their college careers. There are other interesting tables here, which enable you, among other things, to see the absolute scores of the students at various institutions, and to take a look at which questions students seemed to do best adn worst on.

I can’t wait to see whether and how defenders of the status quo in higher education try to spin these results, which seem quite striking. Inside Higher Ed shows the way, offering this banal truth:

The report also found that some of the most prestigious colleges in the United State had lower rankings on the survey questions than did less prestigious institutions.

That seems right, but they’re squandering an opportunity to do so much more with such promising prospects, who know a lot coming in, and often less coming out.

Update: Here’s the one story I could find about the press conference describing the study.

Discussions - 10 Comments

Any link for the actual survey questionnaire? It’s hard to know what to make of it unless you can see the questions they were asking.

The "question themes" are here.

Let me say first that I’m all for and participate in the various programs on the founding and so forth that the ISI rightly proposes to remedy the dearth of civic eduation in our colleges. But I’ve said all along that I’m not a big fan of this survey. I’m not sure that you can prove a lack of civic literary through a multiple choice test of this kind. All this smacks too much to me of "assessment," "learning outcomes," and the need to quantify the obvious or, more exactly, the need to limit oneself to the obvious because only it can be quantified. I’m not at all sure conservatives should go down this "studies show" road. even if we believe this is the only way we can speak to the mainstream educational bureaucracy.

Well, if traditional humanities/social-science educators were really able to "speak" to the mainstream educational establishment, as in have serious conversations with them, and not be shut out ahead of time by tenure-protected and feifdom-protecting faculty, and by a remarkably steep leftward tilt, then this particular arrow in the quiver would be unnecessary and counter-productive. But, face it, in the larger and more prestigious institutions our voices are not heard, and when they are, our arguments are not the ones upon which the curriculum decisions are made. Witness Harvard’s failure in its latest curriculum review to do anything seriously promoting liberal and civic education, despite the wonderful essay the occassion elicted from their Harvey Mansfield. Talk all you want about the depth and rigor of various conservative scholars who advocate this kind of reform--the response will be, "You (traditionalists) have your experts, we have ours. Your experts say something called liberal education is obviously in decline, or that a quality civic education obviously focuses a great deal on the Founding era, but our experts say the reverse is obviously so." And so you do have quantify the obvious, unless you want to cede a whole lot of points to the other side. Peter seems to deny the fact that assesment heads are in command of most college administrations, and you’re going to need some hard facts to get their attention, before they will listen to you, let alone before they will take on the left-dominated faculty feifdoms they will have to if anything is to be done.

I’m perfectly willing to be told my overall assesment of the situation is too grim, or un-nuanced, and Peter knows well my aversion to scientism, but while we have our discussions about these points, my gut-instinct is to say, fine work, ISI, now go and HIRE A WHOLE BUNCH OF NUMBER-CRUNCHING SURVEY-TAKERS and do it a whole lot more. Perhaps you can ask short essay question next time.

Carl, as usual, has a fine and passionate response. But my experience is that we can’t win the assessment game. The efforts to objectify with No Child Left Behind and all that has most decent teachers in the country hating the Republican administration and put into place precedents that will may well be devastating when the Dems. take over. Not only that, all of higher education is being tortured by "the culture of assessment" that has emanated up from high schools to really horrible colleges engaged in remdiation to administration-heavy, credit-hour-generating, fifth rate regional state schools and has finally been forced upon amazingly compliant or gutless good colleges. I admit the ISI study wlll be useful in outraging alumni and maybe voters and all that, but it doesn’t really address and in some ways legitimates what’s increasingly wrong with American education. It certainly won’t really impress the assessment people, for the obvious reason that the whole assessment movement is directed by failed professors who are, above all, against real education. They’re completely against assessing "content," but for measuring "critical thinking," "effective communication," and other airy nothings. They really, truly think that assessment is not at all about students knowing isolated facts--like what was Marbury v. Madison about? So they are just going to shake the heads condescendingly at the alleged ISI results. Let me repeat that I’m really, really for what ISI is actually doing to improve higher education, which is not so much with transforming whole institutions but reaching particular faculty members and establishing centers etc. I am much, much more pessimistic than Carl, which why I think we should be about deconstructing schools of education, the assessment game, accredition, certification etc. We can’t transform American education, but we can get "the man" off the back of those who actually do a good job.

All the conservative experts, with plenty of good reason, point to the Robby George Madison Center as the model of what we should be doing. But Robby is not really transforming Princeton. Most of his battle is securing his independence from mainstream Princeton so that those who want to benefit from his alternative can.

Actually, if you look at the pattern of answers, what institutions’ students got what questions right/wrong most often, I think someone could come along and make a wonderful "study" of bias in the academy. My "beef" with most rightest thinktanks is that they seriously underutilize their data.

I agree with Carl...when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Well, I’m actually in Rome (GA), but believe I have some trouble doing what the Romans do. And I’ll have nothing more to say on this, because I hope I’m wrong and what the study shows causes the walls to come tumbling down.

I take one of the points of the ISI study to be to try to get parents to rethink their choices. As long as the only thing that matters is conventional reputation, the best places don’t have to do anything to change their ways. By providing more information to "consumers," the ISI folks may persuade a few folks to try some unconventional alternatives, though I don’t think they’ll win many points with places they like by, for example, not including Rhodes among the "elite" colleges. Their notion of "elite" clearly has a bi-coastal, anti-flyover cast. (For my money, Rhodes ranks right up there with Davidson, Washington and Lee, and University of the South as "elite" liberal arts colleges in the South, surely the equal of places like Carleton and Pomona. If the ISI folks can’t see this, then their "elite" category is so small as to be virtually useless in educating consumers.

Agreed about the Madison center and its imitators so far, Peter. The grim thing is that if you are right about the general character of administrators, (I wonder) and I am right about the general character of the self-reproducing faculties, then we really are left with your "drop out, start a commune" (or at least, "evade the man") counter-cultural model for higher education; and, this "center" strategy of try-to-establish-beachheads-within/build-bridges-to the mainstream academy will in the end only amount to small-change siphoning off of resources/prestige from unreformable institutions. I voice such pessimism as someone whose bread is currently buttered by the "center" strategy, and who knows first-hand that it greatly benefits the limited pool of students it reaches.

For those of you unfamiliar with what Peter and I are talking about regarding "centers," try ISI’s or the Madison program’s websites. Unfortunately the website for the center I am employed by, UVA’s Program for Consitutionalism and Democracy, isn’t up yet.

One key feature of the countercultural strategy is not to tell anyone (or anyone much) that you’re using it. So my earlier rant was probably an error.

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