Friday, February 12, 2010

Study finds lack of civic learning in U.S. college graduates

College fails to teach civic knowledge - including American history and national institutions - and has an influence on liberal leanings among students, a new study says. The study, conducted by the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute, specifically cited typically liberal positions on gay marriage and school prayer.

Richard Brake, the director of ISI's Culture of Enterprise Initiative, said high schools could be partly to blame for a lack of civic knowledge but college courses should provide more concentrated study. "You should reinforce it and go beyond it," he said. "Learning is about reinforcement."

The study tested 2,508 Americans with various education levels on 33 basic civic knowledge questions that included political literacy, American history and economics. The overall average score was 49 percent. College graduates scored at 57 percent. Respondents also answered questions about 39 social issues. The answers were compared with those from a 2006-07 study that tested more than 14,000 college freshmen and seniors on similar issues.

Mr. Brake said college students scored better on questions relating to the history of the 1900s, including those involving Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. He added that this is some indication of the focus of study in the classroom.

A previous study by ISI found that the average college student has taken an average of only four political science, economics and history courses, although they are considered to be parts of a general education curriculum. Mr. Brake said the study found that students who took more than four of these courses scored higher, but his main concern was of the quality of education. He said a fragmented discipline often allows students to avoid taking basic courses that would teach civic literacy.

One portion of the study found that 58 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 compared with 68 percent ages 45 to 64 disagreed that America corrupts otherwise good people.

Mr. Brake said he is uncertain what variables could be affecting the results. He said it might be natural for younger people to be more skeptical, or that the older generation was educated differently.

The study shows a correlation between college education and an increase in liberal opinions on four polarizing social issues. Of those whose education has not extended beyond high school, 24.6 percent believed gay couples should be allowed to legally marry. That compares with 39.1 percent of respondents with college degrees. More than half - 56.6 percent - of those with a high school education, compared with 39.4 percent of those with a college education, thought public school teachers should be allowed to lead prayer at public schools. The report also found that 74.2 percent of those with a high school education agreed that the Bible is the Word of God, while 63.5 percent of those with college education agreed.

When asked whether non-Christian religions could have affected this result, Mr. Brake said the number of respondents who identified themselves as non-Christians was small.

The responses, however, were less predictable at the Ph.D level of education. Those with doctorate degrees answered more conservatively to marriage and public school prayer questions and more liberally with the Bible question and two additional questions.

Mr. Brake said public opinion is complex. "There are all sorts of things that contribute to why you think a certain way," he said.

An additional finding of the study concluded that civic knowledge broadens a person's frame of mind. It said respondents who scored higher on the civic literacy test were more likely to agree that prosperity depends on entrepreneurs but less likely to agree that free markets bring about full employment.

Mr. Brake said the study shows only that there is a lack of civic education at the college level, and that it does not define right or wrong public opinion. "A lot of this has to do with making more informed consumers," he said. "That's the whole purpose of this initiative."


School Choice Bad for the Environment?

No. It's not a joke. It's the finding from a new paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The argument is school choice leads to more driving which results in more vehicle emissions. The abstract says, "that eliminating district-wide school choice (i.e., returning to a system with neighborhood schools only) would have significant impacts on transport modes and emissions" and the findings "underscore the need to critically evaluate transportation-related environmental and health impacts of currently proposed changes in school policy."

George Mason economist Don Boudreaux appropriately responds in an open letter to the authors:
Why stop with education? Perhaps another future study can be on the environmental impact of supermarket choice. After all, with people free to drive wherever they wish to buy groceries, it's almost certainly the case that too many of us drive hither and yon unnecessarily, wasting our time and fouling the air. I'll bet that your research will show that restricting each American to shopping only at that supermarket nearest to his or her home will reduce vehicular emissions and, hence, help the environment.

Indeed, the possibilities suggested by your research are infinite. No telling how much filth is spit into our environment everyday by people needlessly driving to churches, restaurants, shopping malls, gyms, physicians' offices, night clubs - even friends' homes - when they could easily go to (and, hence, should forcibly be restricted to) churches, restaurants, etc. - and even to the homes of friends - who are located closer to their where they live."

Although it sounds implausible and probably is, environmental policies designed to restrict consumer choice already exist or members of our government are proposing them. Our government is picking off individual freedoms and slowly but surely reducing consumer choice. Vehicle regulations to increase fuel efficiency make cars smaller and less safe. The phase-out of incandescent light bulb will commence in 2012. There are some who want to ban bottled water because it creates too much waste and uses too much energy.

And if there are serious concerns about vehicle emissions, we should measure the inconsequential effects additional driving would have on health and global warming against the benefits of school choice. Having choice is an invaluable benefit of being an American and the more the government attempts to restrict it, the less it will be taken for granted.


History of England starts at 1700, says British university

Academics have attacked a decision by a top university to scrap research into English history before 1700. It was claimed that the move by Sussex University risked jeopardising the nation’s understanding of the subject and “entrenching the ignorance of the present”. Under plans, research and in-depth teaching into periods such as the Tudors, the Middle-Ages, Norman Britain, the Viking invasion and the Anglo-Saxons will be scrapped, along with the Civil Wars.

The university will also end research into the history of continental Europe pre-1900, affecting the study of the Napoleonic wars and the Roman Empire.

The university said it was “reshaping” its curriculum and research following a £3m cut in Government funding. Last week, universities across the country were told their budgets were to be slashed by £449 million next year, including a £215m reduction in teaching funding, with threats of further cuts in the future. Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, has claimed that institutions can use the opportunity to focus resources on their strongest areas.

But in a letter to The Daily Telegraph, 17 leading historians said the move was short-sighted and risked undermining the public’s understanding of the past. “To cut everything but the most modern puts in peril the public function of history, entrenching the arrogance of the present and making a mockery of the claim by the minister behind these cuts that 'we also wish to keep this country civilised',” said the letter.

The academics, who all trained at Sussex, said that the decision to sever ties with European history before 1900 was a particularly retrograde step. “For a university which has long prided itself on its European links to abandon the serious study of such pivotal areas of modern history as the French Revolution will mean depriving Sussex graduates of the mental furniture of educated Europeans,” said the letter. “The university risks damaging its reputation as a centre of knowledge for European culture and history more widely.”

The letter to the Telegraph was signed by historians from universities including Nottingham, Southampton, Trinity College Dublin, Michigan, Sydney University and the University of London Institute in Paris.

Sussex is among dozens of universities being forced to make savings following savage budget cuts announced by the Government. The University and College Union estimated that more than 15,000 jobs – the majority academic posts – could disappear in the next few years. Positions are being cut at King’s College London, Westminster, Leeds, Sheffield Hallam and Hull, while entire campuses belonging to the universities of Cumbria and Wolverhampton are being shut. Several loss making courses are also being scrapped across the country. The University of the West of England has already scrapped French, German and Spanish, and Surrey has dropped its BA in humanities.

The letter called on the university to stop proposals to withdraw from “research, and research-led teaching, in English social history before 1700 and the history of continental Europe before 1900”.

Prof Paul Layzell, deputy vice-chancellor, said: “The proposal put forward by the University of Sussex to withdraw from certain areas of research and specialist teaching in history reflects three factors: first, a strategic determination to focus our research in areas of sustainability and strength; second, to align undergraduate provision with areas of demonstrable demand; and, thirdly, a need to reflect the Government’s financial policy for higher education. “The history degree at Sussex, as befits a programme offered by one of the top 20 departments in the country, will continue to be broad based and intellectually challenging.”

He insisted there were no plans for teaching to be “entrusted with non-specialists”.


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