Faculty: Civic literacy gap dimisses civic involvement

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    Some faculty remain optimistic about student community involvement despite a recent study on American civic literacy, which revealed a major void in civic knowledge among the nation’s college students.

    The report, “Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions,” is the third study conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a nonprofit organization promoting a traditional curriculum.

    The civic literacy test measured knowledge of America’s founding principles, political history, international relations and market economy.

    More than 2,500 randomly selected Americans nationwide took the basic 33-question test, and more than 1,700 people failed, with the average score 49 percent, or an F, according to the institute’s Web site. Elected officials scored even lower than the general public with an average score of 44 percent, and 0.8 percent of all surveyed earned an A.

    According to the report, the average score among those who ended their formal education with a bachelor’s degree is 57 percent; only 13 percentage points higher than the average score of 44 percent earned by high school graduates.

    Political science professor Jim Riddlesperger said it is helpful to remember that every study has an agenda.

    “It alarms me how little average Americans know about our Constitution, about our government, about foreign governments,” Riddlesperger said. “It’s not hard to demonstrate how little they know.”

    But, he said, it’s easy to underestimate people’s values by focusing on academic facts. Some within the academic community have the tendency to overlook the value of street smarts, he said.

    “Academic learning is important, but it is only one kind of learning,” he said.

    Riddlesperger said he couldn’t comment on the civic literacy or political knowledge of the average TCU student because he rarely sees the average TCU student in one of his political science classes.

    Riddlesperger, who has been teaching for 27 years, said he rarely sees business or nursing students in his classes.

    “No one should ever be satisfied with their political knowledge,” he said.

    College students are notoriously uninvolved, and TCU is not unique in this regard, he said. This is common across the nation and even throughout most of the western world because students see less relevance in traditional voting and involvement; they get more satisfaction out of volunteering and direct involvement with the human endeavor, he said.

    Karen Anisman, an associate with the TCU Center for Civic Literacy, said the center encourages that engagement.

    Anisman facilitates the lab component of Riddlesperger’s Practicing American and Texan Politics class, where students participate in and develop the implementation of policy projects.

    Some of the policy projects students are working on this semester relate to the Fort Worth Independent School District dropout rate, the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, funding for inner city schools as compared to suburban schools and eco-friendly projects for TCU, she said.

    Anisman said most TCU students come from high schools with government classes and advanced placement classes; however, to take this knowledge and apply it makes more sense than a traditional classroom setting, she said.

    Students also have the opportunity to engage in community based civic literacy internships for academic credit, she said. These internships require 150 hours of community service within nonprofit organizations and the public sector.

    “Students actually see how public policy is affected by these agencies and groups,” Anisman said.

    Since the program’s beginning in spring 2006, more than 110 interns have completed more than 16,000 hours of community service for credit, she said. The labs and internships give students the tools to go out and change their adult communities, she said.

    Anisman said she doesn’t see any problem with tests and studies measuring civic literacy but cautions that those administering the tests might not know students the way that she does, she said.

    “I taught for 25 years in public schools and at Tarrant County College before coming to TCU. I’m not as dismal about the future as some of these asking the questions seem to be,” she said.

    Riddlesperger said universities are charged with the unique responsibility of doing a better job of educating young people of their role and instilling an appreciation for our political and economic social systems.

    “Even though most in the academic community would probably not agree with me, I am hesitant to blame the young people,” he said. “Still, universities, including TCU, should do a better, more relevant job. This is not a just a political science problem.”

    History professor Claire Sanders said she wants her students to concern themselves with understanding the relationships between historical events and with understanding the consequences of these events, rather than simply memorizing facts.

    She said she is always a little suspicious of studies like the one published by ISI.

    “I would be ecstatic if students could recite the Constitution, but I can’t even recite the Constitution,” Sanders said. “Knowledge is only good if it does something for you – memorization is memorization. As far as civic literacy goes, it is important for students to understand the vital role we play as citizens in self governance.”