And Civics Literacy for All

Purdue's Mitch Daniels thinks civics knowledge should be a graduation requirement. Many faculty members agree.

February 24, 2020
 
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Howard Chandler Christy's depiction of George Washington presiding over the signing of the U.S. Constitution

File it under “possible ways to save the republic”? Purdue University may soon require that all undergraduates, from art historians to wildlife biologists, take and pass a civics test to obtain their degrees.

A number of other institutions have some kind of civics requirement. Purdue’s proposed “Test+” model is unique, however, in that it would mandate that all students pass a test and demonstrate their knowledge of U.S. history, laws and institutions in some other way. Possible options for completing the second part of the requirement are taking an approved course, completing a specially designed learning module from the campus’s 250,000-plus-hour C-SPAN archives and participating in or attending relevant events or experiences (the university’s current speaker series on Democracy, Civility and Freedom of Expression might qualify, for example).

A working group took up after the idea last year after Purdue president Mitch Daniels asked the University Senate to consider it.

“Surveys show people don’t understand the principles of a free society, and if we really want to stay free and govern ourselves, then the citizenry must have a basic understanding of why we do what we do, what their role in it is,” Daniels said recently, summarizing his charge to the Senate.

There was and remains some faculty skepticism about Daniels’s proposal. New academic requirements tend to impose on existing curricula, especially in fields that are already requirement-heavy. Such fields include engineering, which Purdue emphasizes. Some faculty members believe that civics should be covered in high school. And some others sense an ideological agenda: as Indiana’s Republican former governor, Daniels is not the typical academic president, and his own political leanings are well documented.

But there was and is much faculty interest in the idea, too. Questions about the university’s role in shaping the informed electorate that is supposed to uphold democracy are always relevant. They’re perhaps especially relevant right now, in an era of fake news and political polarization.

“Democracy is undergoing a major stress test” in the U.S. and elsewhere, said James A. McCann, professor of political science and a member of the Senate working group. “So I think the intentions here in the main are good.”

To establish a civics knowledge baseline, the working group surveyed 2,100 incoming freshmen on what they knew last fall, during orientation. Their assessment instrument included 20 questions from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s national survey of civic knowledge, drawn directly from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization test, and eight questions from the American National Election Studies.

Name one right in the First Amendment, asked one question. When was the Constitution written, asked another. Does the federal government spend the least on foreign aid, Medicare, national defense or Social Security?

The results did not recall Jay Leno’s "JayWalking" segments: students in the sample outperformed national and college-educated Indiana populations, based on existing benchmarks, on all but two of 28 questions.

But there was room for improvement. For reference, the federal government considers a score of 60 percent on the naturalization test passing. Some 66 percent of Purdue respondents passed the naturalization questions portion. Some 77 percent passed the portion based on Woodrow Wilson Foundation questions, compared to 36 percent of the general population and 53 percent of Indianans.

Through a series of town halls and meetings, the working group -- which included student representatives -- determined that a civics test was necessary but not sufficient to address the civics literacy charge, said Cheryl Cooky, working group and Senate chair and associate professor of American and women’s and gender studies.

“Students, in particular, thought that a test wasn’t really that meaningful as an indicator of civic literacy,” she said. “They didn’t want it to be quote-unquote busywork” and suggested curricular and experiential requirements.

At the same time, McCann said, the group wanted to give students “maximum flexibility.” So it conceived a third way for students to supplement the test: self-paced learning modules that drew on the campus’s exclusive C-SPAN archives. This way, students who really couldn’t take on another course or didn’t want to attend campus and community events could work the modules into their schedules.

The working group encountered one other big problem: the pilot test revealed significant performance gaps between domestic and international students and among students from different ethnic groups. That meant it would be imperative to develop a new instrument free of racial and other biases.

“Needless to say, if we were contemplating having a test administered to every student as a precondition of getting a degree, it’s obvious that it has be neutral with regard to ethnicity and place of birth,” McCann said.

The test instrument has yet to be finalized. But the working group’s proposal is now with the Senate’s Educational Policy committee for review. If it’s approved, it could go to the full Senate for a vote. Cooky said the earliest that that could possibly happen would be the end of the spring semester.

Andrew Freed, chair of the policy committee and professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, said he supports the “idea of Purdue taking responsibility of graduating students who are knowledgeable in civics and have some participation experience.”

Other universities have “successfully figured out a way to integrate this into their requirements,” he added, “so why not us?”

Yet the devil is in the details. Freed said his committee has “a lot of questions about the feasibility of the approach, what it would take to implement it and how this would impact curriculums that do not really have room to spare for another requirement.”

Daniels is optimistic. “Ensuring that our students are fully prepared to be active and informed citizens should be important to all of us and will add value to the excellent degree they are already getting from Purdue,” he said. “I’m grateful to the Senate for their research and due diligence on this and am pleased we now have a planned path forward.”

The working group has identified about a dozen other institutions with civics requirements for students. Most involve coursework, but the University of Central Florida gives students the option of taking a test. Central Florida’s policy is the result of a 2017 mandate from the Florida Legislature saying that students at all state colleges and universities must graduate with a basic understanding of the principles of American democracy and how they’re applied. They must be familiar with the U.S. Constitution, the founding documents and how they’ve shaped self-governance, and landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases.

Researchers at Central Florida’s Lou Frey Institute helped develop a tool called the Civic Literacy Assessment. It’s based in part on the federal naturalization test and has additional questions about court cases, in a multiple-choice format. Other options for completing the requirement include coursework and high scores on relevant Advanced Placement exams.

Stephen S. Masyada, interim director of the institute, said the entire state university system has adopted the test. A new “wrinkle,” however, he said, is that Florida has also adopted a civic literacy assessment for high school students, starting next year. In any case, Masyada said that, at least anecdotally, students at the university seemed to be satisfying the requirement through coursework more than through the test.

Cooky said it’s remains unclear -- including to the experts on the working group -- how much promoting civic literacy will actually spur students to civic engagement, starting with voting.

Still, "this is a good starting point. Making civic literacy more prominent and giving more value to it in making it a graduation requirement will hopefully send a message that this is important.”

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