Civic knowledge starts at home
Two weeks ago, we editorialized on the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s recently released report on the civic knowledge of American college students titled “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship.” ISI tested more than 14,000 college freshmen and seniors from 50 colleges and universities across the country, surveying them on their knowledge of American history, government and economics. The results were staggering — the average score for seniors was a lowly 53.2 percent and for freshmen was 51.7 percent.
Surveys such as this one often invite skepticism. One might ask, were the test questions fair? Did they survey students from a wide range of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds? Judging by the information made available by ISI, we would conclude “yes” on both accounts. According to information obtained from ISI, out of 6,689 seniors surveyed, 48 percent were male, 30 percent were minority students (“Black, Hispanic, Asian, multi-racial or other”) and 5.3 percent were foreign nationals. Of the 50 schools that participated, two are historically black colleges: North Carolina Central University and Florida Memorial University. Percentages of black test takers at these schools were 74 percent and 75 percent respectively. The questions on the survey, although not available to the public, cover a vari- ety of topics ranging from the colony established at Jamestown, Va. to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The report included additional findings that bear mentioning. ISI found that family structure serves as a vital influence on a student’s body of civic knowledge. It gathered information on test takers’ family background such as “parents’ marital status, their education levels, and the extent to which parents discussed public affairs with their children.” Not surprisingly, students who were raised in two-parent households scored higher on the test than those whose parents are either divorced or separated. In addition, ISI notes that “parental education and the frequency of discussions of current events are associated with higher civic learning.” This should encourage parents to talk about current events and American history with their children. Civic knowledge, as with most things, starts at home.