Our Poorly Educated Electorate

Our Poorly Educated Electorate

When Donald Trump professed to "love the poorly educated" during his Nevada caucus victory speech, it provoked a collective gasp. But what do we mean when we say "poorly educated"?

The term normally refers to those without high-school degrees. It's a way of describing how much education people have, and not necessarily the quality of whatever education they've received. Perhaps more than anyone wants to acknowledge, however, it also accurately describes a large portion of America's electorate — including many college graduates — when it comes to civic knowledge.

In January, my colleagues at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) released a report illuminating the deplorable state of American civic education. That report, "A Crisis in Civic Education," highlights alarming deficiencies in both secondary and post-secondary education when it comes to knowledge of our country's history and government.

Nearly half of college graduates do not know the correct term lengths of Congress. One-third of college graduates, and more than half of the general population, cannot identify the Bill of Rights as a group of constitutional amendments.

The results are grave, but they are not surprising considering the poor curricular quality in high-school and college education. The Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress has shown that virtually all eighth graders, and 75 percent of high-school seniors, are not proficient in civics. The DOE has since dispensed with the high-school exam, but ACTA's recent surveys of college graduates show that eight years of education, from middle school to a bachelor's degree, matter little when it comes to proficient civic knowledge.

Of the more than 1,100 college and university curricula that ACTA studies annually, only 18 percent require a course in U.S. history or government. Colleges often say they have requirements in these areas, but lifting the veil reveals disconnected and arbitrary curricula. At the University of Colorado−Boulder, students can fulfill the "United States Context" requirement with "Horror Films and American Culture." Students at the University of California−Davis can take "Vampires and Other Horrors in Film and Media" to satisfy their "American Culture, Governance, and History" requirement. Courses like these are no substitute for rigorous study in America's founding principles and history, but they are rampant in college catalogs across the country.

In 2015, the Newseum Institute released the results of its annual survey, showing that one-third of Americans could not name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Even more disheartening is that 43 percent could not name freedom of speech as a right. Ignorance of the Bill of Rights soon leads to apathy, then contempt. We've watched political rallies slide into violence where volatile verbiage is aplenty, but civil discourse is nowhere to be found. In light of not being able to identify the Bill of Rights, it is no wonder the political process now yields a disregard for the First Amendment in exchange for Jacobinic drivel.

At the conclusion of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, a woman famously asked Ben Franklin "Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?" Franklin replied, "A Republic, if you can keep it." With the influx of diluted and capricious civic standards in college curricula, the number of voters deficient in civic knowledge will only continue to grow. Real reform is desperately needed in higher education where colleges and universities take it upon themselves to reinvigorate their mission to foster an informed electorate. Until then, we can only expect diminishing returns on our republic's education, resulting in the final loosening of our ephemeral grasp on liberty.

Eric Bledsoe is ACTA's program officer for curricular reform.

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