Civic Education in the University of Maine System

Read the full report | “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects something that never was and never will be.”

It is with this quote from Thomas Jefferson that the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) began its 2006 report on citizenship education at the nation’s colleges and universities. Based on a survey involving thousands of college undergraduates, the institute’s report concluded that the country’s higher education institutions are failing to provide students with even a basic understanding of the nation’s “history, government, foreign affairs, and economy.” “Knowledge of America’s history and institutions is alarmingly low,” the study finds, “because universities fail to increase undergraduate civic learning in any meaningful sense.”

The study, one of the largest ever conducted on the subject of civic learning at the nation’s colleges and universities, was based on an extensive survey of student knowledge conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy. More than 14,000 students at 50 colleges were quizzed on their knowledge of American history, government, foreign affairs, and economics. The average college senior scored below 70 percent at every college. As a group, the seniors scored only 1.5 percent better than the college freshmen, leading researchers to conclude that “institutions of higher learning in America do little” to add to the “civic literacy” of their students.

ISI’s conclusions are not without precedent. A 2002 report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) found from its own survey that “seniors from America’s elite colleges and universities were graduating with an alarming ignorance of their heritage and a profound historical illiteracy.” This report followed up an earlier study by ACTA that reached similar conclusions. “Four out of five — 81 percent — of seniors from the top 55 colleges and universities in the United States received a grade of D or F,” on ACTA’s 1999 collegiate survey of American history and culture.