A college education—that is, a college degree: education needn’t come into the picture—can cost upwards of $200,000 these days. The average student leaves the old ivy-covered halls almost $20,000 in debt. And what do they get for their pains? Not a lot. That, anyway, is the sobering message of The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions, a new study undertaken by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s National Civic Literary Board and the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy. The ambitious study—its findings are available online at this web address: http://www.americancivicliteracy.org—canvassed more than 14,000 college freshmen and seniors about their knowledge of American history and political institutions. Some of the depressing highlights:

•Seniors scored 1.5 percent higher on average than freshmen. In other words, four years and a couple hundred grand doesn’t buy much knowledge of American history.

•If the survey had been administered as an examination, seniors would fail with an average score of 53.2 percent.

•The more elite institutions do not perform better than their less prestigious cousins—far from it. The report indicates that at Brown, Georgetown, and Yale (among other elite institutions), seniors emerge from their studies knowing less about American history and foreign affairs than freshmen.

A lot that The Coming Crisis in Citizenship reveals should be obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense. It is hardly surprising, for example, that students tend to know less about American history at college, where fewer classes in the subject are taught. And you do not have to be Einstein to understand that a greater knowledge of your country’s history and political institutions tends to go along with greater civic participation, from voting to community service. But it has long been obvious that when it comes to our institutions of higher education, common sense is one of the most uncommon commodities. Reading through this depressing study, we recalled Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s thought-provoking aphorism about universities: “we everywhere seek to propagate wisdom: who knows whether in a couple of centuries there may not exist universities for restoring the old ignorance.” “The old ignorance” looks better and better.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 3, on page 3
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