This year’s NCAA basketball tournament—better known as March Madness—has been especially memorable for the many upsets that have occurred. Americans love rooting for the underdog (It started from our beginning, I think, when we pulled off a pretty big upset against the British), so when Northern Iowa took out No. 1-seeded Kansas, most Americans cheered, because it took the perfect game for the upstart Panthers to topple the perennial powerhouse Jayhawks. Other notable Cinderellas this year have included the Big Red of Cornell, who took down Wisconsin, and the Racers of Murray State, who defeated Vanderbilt.
But the hardwood is not the only place where collegiate upsets can occur. A particular Cinderella story in the classroom actually involves Cornell and Murray State. In this instance, the contest centered on civic learning, with Ivy League Cornell assuming the role of favorite and Murray State reprising its Cinderella status.
For the past five years, the non-profit Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) has been engaged in a new kind of scientific research project designed to empirically assess the extent to which colleges and universities advance their students’ understanding of America’s core history, key texts, and enduring political and economic institutions (Go to www.americancivicliteracy.org for more details about this initiative.). These “civic literacy” studies involve testing 14,000 freshmen and 14,000 seniors from 85 separate colleges and universities with a 60-question multiple-choice exam, which covers American history, government, foreign affairs, and economics. Because the ISI evaluated freshmen knowledge and senior knowledge, it now can determine “value-added score” what a particular college imparts to its graduates when it comes to their country’s history. Overall, the average freshmen score was a failing grade of 50 percent. The senior score was not much better, adding only an anemic 4 percent to the score. No school, not even Harvard and Yale Universities, got above a 69 percent, and most failed. Some of the most missed questions, and ones where there was actual “negative learning” from freshmen to senior year, dealt with such fundamental concepts as: judicial review, George Washington’s warning against “foreign entanglements,” the Monroe Doctrine, the Federalist Papers, and basic details of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
In terms of “negative learning,” the school that led the way in this dubious distinction was the aforementioned Big Red of Cornell, whose freshmen earned 62 percent and outscored their seniors by 5 percentage points. Just think, with yearly tuition, room and board, and fees approaching $50,000 a year, Cornell’s seniors actually lost what little knowledge they had about their country after 4 years of a Cornell education.
Compare that result with Murray State, a state school in Kentucky that recruits far fewer accomplished students but is ranked third in ISI’s civic learning ranking. While it is no doubt true that Murray State’s raw score was below that of Cornell’s (Murray State’s freshmen earned a 40 percent on the exam, and their seniors scored a 50 percent on the exam), when you compare the "value-added" scores, Murray State scored 15 percentage points higher than Cornell. Clearly, Cornell does a better job attracting smarter students (though at 62 percent, Cornell’s freshmen don’t have a lot to be proud of), but when it comes to actually doing the job that colleges are paid to do, promoting learning, the mid-major Murray State left the elite Cornell in the dust.
So, what should we make of this academic Cinderella story? Firstly, there is clearly room for vast improvement on the part of all colleges and universities when it comes to effectively teaching America’s history and institutions. Colleges like to pride themselves on preparing their young citizens to become the future leaders of the country, but how can you be an effective leader if you do not know the story of how our nation’s past leaders have grappled with the perennial challenges of governing a free people? Secondly, prestige does not necessarily guarantee quality and excellence. Maybe some of our elite schools should take a closer look at their curricula to ensure that courses on American history and government become standard requirements for all of their students. Thirdly, parents and taxpayers who pay the bills of American higher education need to start holding colleges accountable for the actual output of their academic programming, and if necessary, start demanding more transparency in terms of what is taught on their campuses, who is teaching their kids, and how well these core subjects are being taught. Just as there should be more mid-major schools invited to the Big Dance, Americans should take a look at some less prominent schools like Murray State, as well as other unknowns like Grove City and Rhodes, which employ curricula that have produced higher than average civic learning scores.
Let the Madness continue!
Dr. Richard Brake is Co-Chair of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board. For more details regarding ISI’s past and current civic literacy studies, and to take the test on-line, please go to www.americancivicliteracy.org