By Gregory Hirshman
As one of our nation’s premier universities, Stanford takes pride in its select undergraduate students. Over 90% come from the top tenth of their high school classes, and an even greater percentage have unweighted grade point averages of at least 3.75. Nonetheless, Stanford students demonstrate a profound lack of American civic literacy. Between 2005 and 2007, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a non-partisan educational organization, administered an exam on 50 American campuses consisting of 60 basic multiple choice questions on American history, American political thought, America’s relationship with the rest of the world, and the market economy. Surprisingly, Stanford freshmen answered only 66.1% of the questions correctly. Stanford seniors averaged only 66.9%, statistically insignificantly better than the freshman and worse than seniors at less academically acclaimed schools like Grover City College, whose seniors scored 67.3%. Stanford prides itself on a thorough and well-rounded education of its students, yet it does little to improve its students’ American civic literacy. Stanford seniors performed better than the national average of 54.2%, but this merely demonstrated how little American civic literacy is produced by current American high schools and colleges.
To appreciate how simple the questions were and how ignorant Stanford seniors and other college seniors proved to be, consider the following. When tested on American history, only 53.4% of Stanford seniors knew that Yorktown was the final major battle of the Revolutionary War. Nationally, only 45.9% of seniors knew that fact. Only 52.3% of Stanford seniors knew that the line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” comes from the Declaration of Independence. The national average was 45.9%. Even fewer knew that NATO was formed to resist Soviet expansion.
Why are college students today, and Stanford students in particular, so ignorant of American history? How could so many bright minds be unaware of the basics of American history, politics, international relations, and economics after passing through high school and more than three years of college? One major cause is the emphasis on multiculturalism. Instead of learning about the historical events, political thought, international relations, and economic ideas that shaped America, students study politically correct dogma that does little, if anything, to improve their basic civic literacy. Students may be familiar with the sexual practices of white men and Native American women, but they do not know, for example, that the Declaration of Independence is based on the political thought of John Locke. By emphasizing a partisan political agenda and by failing to teach Americans about the foundations of their country, high schools and colleges are encouraging students to ignore what has made America so unique and so great. These institutions are putting the future well-being of our country at risk by leaving its future leaders ignorant of their heritage.
If they received a proper history education, college freshmen would not be so ill-informed. Today, American history textbooks promote a multicultural ideology that seeks to make minority groups feel good rather than educating students about the central events in American history. In 2006, for example, the California legislature passed a bill requiring “gay history” be included in public school textbooks to counter the alleged “enforced invisibility” of gays in American history. This bill requires all social studies textbooks to include a section on “the role and contributions of … people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender … with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.” Although the place of gays in America is a current issue, it is absurd to give “gay history” such prominence while students do not learn the basics about the Constitution and the Civil War. It is reasonable for students to pursue various specialized topics after they have mastered the fundamentals of American history, but college freshmen lack such knowledge, as the ISI study clearly demonstrated. Until schools teach the basic facts of American history, political thought, international relations, and economic theory, it is preposterous for them to feed students multiculturalist dogma.
Although it is sad that Stanford freshmen possess so little American civic literacy, it is even more shocking and disturbing that Stanford seniors know so little more. Stanford does little, if anything, to improve the situation, although it aspires to be the educator of America’s next generation of leaders. An examination of Stanford’s general education requirements reveals part of the reason. The Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) series touts itself as a vehicle by which “students’ conception of knowledge” is challenged and “diverse analytical and critical skills” are developed, but it does nothing to educate freshmen in American civic literacy. Students are exposed to multicultural ideas such as ethnosexual frontiers and colonial exploitation but will learn virtually nothing, for example, about the New Deal or the Cuban Missile Crisis. While multiculturalist dogma may effect “students’ conception of knowledge,” it does not improve their basic civic literacy. Stanford’s “Education for Citizenship” requirement, despite its title, similarly fails to ensure that students achieve such literacy. While the title might suggest instruction dealing with the fundamentals of the American political system, the requirement can be fulfilled by taking “Mapping and Wrapping the Body” and “Ethics of Pleasure.” Students can instead take classes like “Colonial and Revolutionary America” and “The United States in the Twentieth Century,” but such classes are not required, and relatively few students take them. The focus on multiculturalism and the lack of required classes relevant to American civic literacy result in Stanford students who are not really being “educated for citizenship.” Such multicultural indoctrination and the failure to promote American civic literacy are not unique to Stanford. At Princeton and Yale, for example, freshmen actually performed better than seniors on the ISI exam.
Until high schools and colleges start emphasizing American civic literacy and cease promoting multiculturalism at the expense of familiarity with the basics of American society, even their most talented students will remain painfully ignorant of American history, political thought, international relations, and economic ideas. While institutions of higher learning may teach gay history and ethnosexual frontiers, they should ensure that their students achieve basic civic literacy. As Cicero said over 2,000 years ago, “to remain ignorant of things that happened before you is to remain a child.” It is the obligation of our high schools and colleges to assure that the future leaders of America do not remain in childish ignorance about their country. Stanford should and must do better.