The Constitution of the United States established what form of government? Which wall was President Reagan referring to when he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall"?
These questions were part of a 60-question test of civic literacy administered to college freshmen and seniors at 50 American colleges and universities. The test (available at www.isi.org) covered American history, government, international relations and economics.
The results were disheartening. Freshman overall scored an average 50.4 percent, while seniors improved only to 54.2 percent. Eight of the 50 colleges were left to explain how four years at their institution could actually diminish students' knowledge base, including elite schools Cal, Princeton, Duke and Cornell.
It can be amusing to point out the shortcomings of the privileged and prestigious, but what difference does it make?
Here is the problem. The U.S. is unique in that our identity as a nation is the ideas which bind us together. Limited, constitutional government charged with protecting the rights of the governed, equality before the law, economic freedom and the rule of law have produced unprecedented prosperity and liberty.
But we are producing generations who don't know much about these foundational ideas. They can't possibly be counted on to protect and pass on a heritage of which they are largely ignorant and for which they have been taught a vague disrespect. Big questions like the future of Social Security are already being affected by leaders unaware of basic principles and history.
Our only option is to insist that our colleges produce civic literates. Time isn't on our side. We must act now if we hope to pass on to future generations the wisdom and decency of what it means to be an American.
Dr. Tom Patterson is chairman of the Goldwater Institute, a former state legislator and emergency room physician. A longer version of this article originally appeared in the East Valley Tribune.
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