A Very Long Disengagement
"History. Students entering college have passed through several years of social studies and history classes, but few of those students remember the significant events, figures, and texts. On the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress history exam, the majority of high-school seniors, or 57 percent, scored "below basic," and only about one in nine reached "proficient" or better. Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, called the results "truly abysmal," and worried about a new voting bloc coming of age with such a meager awareness of American history.
People who believe that college can remedy the history deficit should be dismayed at the findings of another study, commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, of the historical knowledge of seniors at the top 55 colleges in the country. Many of the questions were drawn from the NAEP high-school exam, and the results were astonishing. Only 19 percent of the subjects scored a grade of C or higher. According to the 2000 report, titled "Losing America's Memory," only 29 percent knew what "Reconstruction" refers to, only one-third recognized the American general at Yorktown, and less than one-fourth identified James Madison as the "father of the Constitution."
The consequences are dire. As Leslie Lenkowsky, the former head of the Corporation of National and Community Service, observed in response to the NAEP results, "If young people cannot construct a meaningful narrative of American history, then there is little hope that the nation can live up to the highest task of a pluralistic liberal democracy."
Civics. In 1999 the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement reported that more than two-thirds of ninth graders study the Constitution, Congress, or the presidency. Unfortunately, their course work hasn't sunk in. In a 2003 survey on the First Amendment commissioned by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, only one in 50 college students named the first right guaranteed in the amendment, and one out of four did not know any freedom protected by it.
In 2003 a project led by the National Conference of State Legislatures examined the civic awareness of young people age 15 to 26 compared with older Americans. Barely half of those surveyed said that "paying attention to government and politics" is important to good citizenship. While 64 percent knew the name of the latest "American Idol," only 10 percent could identify the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The researchers concluded "that young people do not understand the ideals of citizenship, they are disengaged from the political process, [and] they lack the knowledge necessary for effective self-government."