The Forum | General Education

Intern Blog: Towards a True Civic Education

July 28, 2016

What does it mean to be an American? That seems like a simple question every American college student should be able to answer. For a majority of students, however, it is not so simple. Most college students have heard about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the concepts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in their 10th grade history classes. But a 10th grade history class is no substitute for a college-level United States history or government course. Survey after survey shows that too many students leave college for all intents and purposes civically and historically illiterate. This is a crisis that endangers our future.

Shockingly, the 2015-16 edition of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s What Will They Learn? study shows that, of the more than 1,100 four-year colleges and universities reviewed, both public and private, 81.9% do not require a foundational course in American history or government. As a result, too many students have stunning gaps in their civic and historical knowledge.

This past winter, ACTA released A Crisis in Civic Education, a new report that exposed the civic illiteracy of today’s college graduates. The report includes one of ACTA’s recent surveys testing the graduates’ civic knowledge: Nearly 40% did not know that Congress has the power to declare war. Less than half knew that presidential impeachments are tried before the U.S. Senate. Almost 60% failed to correctly identify the requirements for ratifying a constitutional amendment.

Such knowledge is not trivial: It is the key to fulfilling the purpose of an American citizen. It is the preparation that allows Americans to participate effectively in self-government. It is the cornerstone of America.

A high school history or government class is not enough. Students need a rigorous college-level course that covers America’s key documents and moments in history. They need coursework that chronologically surveys American history and its institutions. They do not need a course that surveys the history of sports, jazz music, sex, or marijuana in America. Niche courses like these do not give students the civic knowledge they need to be educated and effective citizens, capable of self-governance.

ACTA’s A Crisis in Civic Education says it best: “Our civic values will fail unless they are constantly renewed through an education that prepares each generation to participate in a democratic republic and to understand the struggles, past and present, that sustain our liberty.” For college students, a course in United States history or government should be an expectation, not just an option.  

Every summer, ACTA is privileged to have several interns conduct research for the What Will They Learn?™ project. This is the first in a series of guest blogs written by our interns, who chose topics relevant to higher education. Nathaniel is a junior at Ashland University and an Ashbrook Scholar. He is a double major in health and risk communication, public relations and strategic communications. He minors in history, political science, and religion. He also serves on the executive board of Ashland University’s chapter of Phi Kappa Psi.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More