Monday, January 21, 2008

Dr. King and "civic literacy"

Josiah Bunting III, former superintendent ar Virginia Military Institute, currently chairs the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s National Civic Literacy Board which oversees the ISI’s American Civic Literacy Program.

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King today Bunting reminds us:

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the highest principles of liberty were enshrined in America's founding documents and that one key to securing equal justice for all was to make certain that Americans remembered -- and remained true to -- their national heritage.

Someone visiting Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, King once wrote, would have seen not only America's most segregated city, but also a place where the municipal leaders had never learned basic lessons of American history.

"You might have concluded that here was a city that had been trapped for decades in a Rip Van Winkle slumber," he said, "a city whose fathers had apparently never heard of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, the Bill of Rights, the Preamble to the Constitution, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, or the 1954 decision of the United States Supreme Court outlawing segregation in the public schools."

When King was jailed in Birmingham in 1963 for marching without a permit, he wrote a letter from his cell that is a supremely logical, yet passionate, defense of civil disobedience in pursuit of civil rights. It was the demonstrators in city after city, not the authorities who imprisoned them, King argued, who were defending America's founding principles.

"One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thusly, carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence," he wrote. . . .

As we remember King today, it ought to be obvious that future generations of Americans will not be able to claim this inheritance unless they know what it is.

Unfortunately, a recent survey revealed that American colleges are doing a miserable job when it comes to teaching students many of the basic facts about our founding documents and how the principles they enshrine have -- or have not -- been implemented through the decades.

Last fall, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute surveyed 14,000 randomly selected freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges nationwide. Each student was given a 60-question multiple choice "civic literacy" test that focused on American history, government, international relations, and economics. The average freshman scored 50.4 percent, or an "F." The average senior did little better, scoring 54.2 percent -- also an "F."

The results revealed, for example, that only 45.95 percent of college 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. Only 47.71 percent knew Fort Sumter came before Gettysburg, which came before Appomattox. Only 61.42 percent knew Abraham Lincoln was elected sometime between 1851 and 1875. Only 42.77 percent knew that the struggle between President Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans was over Reconstruction. …

The failure to significantly increase civic knowledge among college students has immediate practical consequences: The more civic knowledge a student gains in college, the survey data demonstrated, the more likely he or she is to vote and participate in other civic activities.

It also has profound consequences for the longer term. As King argued, the rights enshrined in the Declaration, protected by the Constitution, and eventually redeemed by all Americans through decades of civil struggle and reconciliation, are universal and irrevocable.

If we forget what they are, we will forget who we are: one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
In a society such as ours in which many information sources are available to all of us, collage-age students and adults bear a good deal of the responsibility for what they know and value. I don’t doubt Bunting agrees.

With that said, I admire Bunting’s informed tribute to King whose public life, lived under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, did so much to help America “live out the full meaning of her creed.

And I appreciate the work Bunting’s doing to call to our attention the “miserable job” colleges and universities are doing “when it comes to teaching students many of the basic facts about our founding documents and how the principles they enshrine have -- or have not -- been implemented through the decades.”

The ISI finding of little difference in “civic literacy” between college freshmen and seniors leads me to wonder: What would the results be for two test populations who did not attend college and were the same averages ages as the test’s freshmen and senior populations?

Bunting's entire tribute to Dr. King and call to us is here.
What do you think.

Hat tip: