ACTA: American Students Don’t Know American History or Government

In a study released this month, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reveals that college graduates have low levels of knowledge about American history and government.

For example, roughly 50% of college graduates could not explain the term lengths of Congressmen,  roughly 70% could not “identify James Madison as the Father of the Constitution,” and roughly 80% of college graduates who participated in a 2012 study did not know the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

While the study focuses on the role of colleges and universities – among which more than 80% of liberal arts institutions do not require students to study American history – the unstated implication is that high schools have also failed to teach students this key knowledge before those students even arrive at college.

The study begins with a quotation from Louise Mirrer, President of the New-York Historical Society, who said:

In today’s world, when so many nations are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to incorporate different ethnic, religious, and racial groups, the case for reminding Americans of their history in our museums and in our schools and colleges and universities…could not be stronger – especially as that history conveys our nation’s stunning successful recipe, based on the documents of our founding, for an inclusive and tolerant society.

However, granted that the ACTA study was focused on American history, Mirrer does not mention that the ideas of the American Founding were not exclusively American – in fact, other people had already written about those principles: the American Founding was significant because it was the first time those earlier ideas were institutionalized together. While study of American history and government is necessary, it also needs to be placed in the context of the history of western civilization. Failing to study western civilization will leave students with the impression that the United States was formed in an ideological vacuum, and that the United States is only one among many equally good (or equally bad) nations.

Additionally, granted that recent worldwide firestorms over race and religion have made tolerance one of the most-discussed concepts of our young century, Mirrer’s focus on tolerance gives only one aspect – and a pragmatic aspect at that – of the importance of American history. While it is vital for Americans to tolerate various races and religions, “tolerance” denotes grudging allowance for difference, rather than true respect for the God-given rights of all people to speak, worship, work, and raise their families (to name a few rights) in any way that they like, provided that they do not infringe on the God-given rights of others. Hearty protection of these God-given rights is the true foundation for American liberty.