A report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found that, for the most part, America’s colleges and universities do a poor job of teaching students about American history and civic institutions. Locally, however, North Carolina Central University does a fair job. It was ranked in the 13th among 50 schools included in a survey designed to gauge student knowledge in those areas.
NCCU’s students performed better than those surveyed at Appalachian State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Duke University, according to the report, released on Sept. 26.
The report is titled “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions.” Researchers conducted a 60-question, multiple-choice exam to test more than 14,000 freshmen and seniors about their knowledge of history and civics. Seniors scored only 1.5 percent higher on average than freshmen at their schools.
NCCU’s seniors scored 4.8 percent higher than freshmen from NCCU. NCCU was by far the best among the four state schools participating in the study. Appalachian State’s students gained in knowledge by only 1.7 percent, while students at UNC-Chapel Hill increased knowledge at a rate of only 1.6 percent. Appalachian State was ranked 27th and UNC-Chapel Hill was 28th.
As for Duke, its students had a decrease in knowledge, according to the study. Seniors performed worse than freshmen students at Duke by 2.3 percent. Duke was ranked 46th among the 50 schools, ahead of only Brown University, Cornell University, the University of California-Berkley, and Johns Hopkins University.
Rhodes College, a private, liberal arts college in Memphis, Tenn., was the top school in the survey. Its seniors gained in knowledge at a rate of 11.6 percent. Other schools finishing among the top five in the survey were Colorado State (10.9 percent increase), Calvin College (9.5 percent), Grove City College (9.4 percent), and the University of Colorado-Boulder (8.9 percent).
Pope Center for Higher Education Policy Vice President George Leef said North Carolina Central’s size is among the reasons why it fared better than some of the larger institutions in the UNC system.
“The smaller schools in the UNC system are much stronger in their general education requirements than the large ones,” Leef said. “NCCU requires its students to take the kinds of courses that have been the pillars of a college education. In contrast, UNC-Chapel Hill offers its students a vast array of courses they can take to fulfill their general education requirements. It’s easy to see how many of them could sail through their years without learning much about our history, political institutions, or economy.”
Besides finding that colleges are doing a poor job teaching history and civics, the study’s authors also make other findings. They say that prestige doesn’t mean better education. Some of the top institutions, including Harvard at number 25, were outside the top 10. Other findings were that knowledge decreases when fewer courses on history, political science, government, and economics are taken, and that civic participation increases through greater civic understanding.
“Students who demonstrated greater learning of America’s history and institutions were more engaged in citizenship activities such as voting, volunteer community service, and political campaigns,” the study says.
To address these problems, the report makes five recommendations, including improved assessment of learning outcomes at colleges and universities. Other recommendations include increasing the number of required history, political science, and economic courses, holding higher education institutions more accountable, providing more information on college performance in teaching history and civics, and building centers on campus to support the restoration of teaching American history, political science and economics.
“To maintain and strengthen our republic, our college youth must learn about America’s history and institutions in order to engage in their duties and obligations as citizens in a democracy,” the report says.
Shannon Blosser is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.