Students need to know civics to make political choices

U.S. colleges make students more liberal and do little to increase civic knowledge, a study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) – an academic think tank – says.

The group asked about 2,500 randomly selected U.S. adults how strongly they agreed or disagreed with 39 different propositions designed to measure their political leanings. The study concluded that Americans who earned a bachelor’s degree were more likely to favor same-sex marriage and legal abortion for any reason – two traditional liberal platforms.

College-educated students were also less likely to agree that anyone can succeed through hard work and perseverance, that the Bible is the word of God and that teachers should lead prayers in public schools.

College is a formative time for many students to determine political views. The fact that many students are choosing to be liberal may worry the conservative-leaning ISI, but the real issue is that students are making political decisions based on limited knowledge of history and how government works.

The report was one in a series of studies by the ISI designed to gauge civic knowledge in the U.S. In 2006, the institute surveyed 14,000 college freshmen and seniors on civics. On average, seniors answered 53 percent of the questions correctly, a mere 1.5 percent higher than freshman.

In 2008, the ISI asked more than 2,500 Americans 33 basic questions, some of which were taken from the U.S. citizenship exam. More than 71 percent of Americans failed with basic questions such as naming the three branches of government, a question only 49 percent of Americans could do correctly.

A college education did improve scores, but graduates still failed with an average score of 57 percent.

ISI held a news conference following the 2008 report to call for increased civic education at universities. David Azerrad, one of the attendants, said to the Chronicle of Higher Education that too few universities require basic courses in American history.

He pointed to a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni that surveyed 50 universities and found that only seven required an American history course.

“You don’t have to be an expert,” Azerrad said. “We are not asking students to take eight classes, just one.”

While it’s unclear why college makes some students lean left, colleges and universities do tend to be liberal institutions. According to an analysis of General Social Survey data from 1996 to 2008, 43 percent of professors identify as liberal, while only 9 percent are conservative.

Whatever is shaping the political views of students, it apparently is not their understanding of civics. This is a shame because when forming decisions about government, students should at least know how it works.