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Reformers propose college civics literacy test as grad requirement

Almost one in six Americans age 18 to 29 believe the Cold War was defined by the struggle for oil in the Middle East.

Almost one in three think Benjamin Franklin was the “Father of the Constitution,” and another one in four believe the Supreme Court is responsible for impeaching the president.

These survey results, as well as other examples of civic illiteracy among Americans, are the impetus behind the Blueprint for Reform: Civics Education policy report from the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that works toward higher education reform.

“Civic literacy is a necessary precursor to civic appreciation. Students can’t begin to appreciate things they don’t know or understand,” Jenna Robinson, president of the Martin Center, told The College Fix in a January email. “ We see our policy recommendations as a first step. We think studying founding documents is a particularly good way to get students invested in the ideas.”

The blueprint includes several policy steps to increase civic literacy among students, including to create programming during freshman orientation on the importance of the First Amendment.

It also proposes a mandatory course for college students on American institutions and ideals and to require students to pass a college civics literacy test as a graduation requirement.

As for the suggestion to require universities to mandate a class on American institutions to graduate, Robinson said she sees legislation as “one possible” path forward.

“Ideally, all colleges and universities (both public and private) would change their general education curricula to include adequate civics instruction,” she said, adding “accreditation agencies certainly could be part of the solution, but not as they are currently constituted.”

The report on civics education is the most recent among the Martin Center’s growing set of blueprint policy briefs on education-related issues.

Earlier blueprints are focused on free speech, trigger warnings, racial preferences and institutional neutrality, among many others.

“Our Blueprints for Reform provide recommendations and solutions ready for implementation. They include specific proposals, model university policies, and model legislation from public policy organizations and states that have already introduced successful reforms,” the center stated in a Jan. 8 news release.

Only four of America’s top public universities require history majors to take comprehensive courses in American history, the civics education blueprint states.

“[O]nly 214 institutions out of 1,135 (about 19 percent) require a foundational course in U.S. government or history,” it states.

“Universities aren’t just failing to teach students about their country’s history and constitutional structure, many actively propagate distorted and erroneous depictions of American history,” adds the blueprint, published during the fall semester.

“Furthermore, these universities have reimagined ‘civics education’ as a form of political activism.”

Part of the recommendations in the blueprint includes requiring public universities make syllabi for courses on American civics publicly available.

The citizenship test is a series of questions about American institutions, philosophy, and current government officials. While the test had a 93.8 percent pass rate among citizenship applicants in 2021, a 2018 study found that only one in three American citizens could pass the test.

The Martin Center’s blueprint cites civics programs at colleges like Purdue and civic literacy requirements in states like Florida as examples of sufficiently rigorous development.

Another example is that of Arizona’s American Institutions requirement, which has undergrads learning a basic grasp of American history, principles and institutional functions.

“An honest grounding in American history and principles will enable students to become knowledgeable, responsible, and engaged citizens,” the blueprint states. “It may awaken in them an appreciation of the freedoms they enjoy and a sense of duty to preserve them.”

MORE: Florida launches its first civics program at three colleges

IMAGE: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva / Shutterstock

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Isaac Willour is a political science major at Grove City College. He is an award-winning columnist for GCC's college newspaper and the senior editor of the GCC Journal of Law & Public Policy. He chairs the Grove City AEI Executive Council, and his work has been published in The Dispatch, National Review, The Christian Post, and a variety of other outlets.