Even in the depths of the Great Depression, with the economy bottomed out, Americans showed they still could think big. In a little more than a year, construction crews built a landmark that still stands proud, recognized worldwide as a symbol of our country: the Empire State Building.
I recently visited the building to speak to an enthusiastic group of King’s College students about the need to return to the principles of our Founding Fathers. Unfortunately, as a new study shows, many students simply aren’t learning what makes America unique. In fact, what they are learning all too often helps divide rather than unite Americans.
This study, titled “The Shaping of the American Mind,” is the latest in an annual series from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI.org), where I’m proud to serve as a trustee.
There’s no mystery as to why today’s college seniors lack basic knowledge of American history and institutions. Previous ISI reports revealed that schools of higher learning aren’t teaching these principles. At some elite universities, the seniors know less than the freshmen. The reports also show that Americans agree colleges should teach students about our shared history and civic principles.
But does knowing the fundamental principles of “the American experiment” influence the beliefs of our citizens? That’s what this year’s report aimed to find out. ISI researchers directed 33 questions to a representative sample of roughly 2,500 Americans. Many questions were taken from U.S. naturalization exams and high school achievement tests. The report reached some important conclusions.
For example, even though colleges aren’t teaching civic knowledge, it can be learned elsewhere: through religious institutions, patriotic organizations and books such as “We Still Hold These Truths,” by Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation.
That leads to the report’s second finding. Civic knowledge, however learned, has a broader and more diverse influence on Americans’ thinking than college does.
To cite one example, the report found that having more civic knowledge makes a person “more likely to agree that prosperity depends on entrepreneurs and free markets [but] less likely to agree that the free market brings about full employment.” In other words, civic knowledge seems to make one more pragmatic but not more dogmatic. That is a trait Americans will need if we’re to pass along a better world to coming generations.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the report concludes that additional civic knowledge increases a person’s belief in American ideals and institutions.
The ISI survey showed that, overall, “Sixty-three percent of Americans disagree that America corrupts otherwise good people. Sixty-one percent of Americans disagree that America’s Founding documents are obsolete. Fifty-six percent of Americans agree that prosperity depends upon entrepreneurs and free markets.”
It further found that people with greater civic knowledge are less likely to believe that America corrupts otherwise good people, less likely to believe that the Founding documents are irrelevant and more likely to think the free-enterprise system works.
As our economy works to recover from another meltdown, we need to keep thinking big. We need to help more Americans learn the basic principles of civil society. The way forward is in understanding our great shared history.
When the Empire State Building opened, former New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith said it was “built by the brains, the brawn, the ingenuity and the muscle of mankind.” The same applies to the United States. Let’s make sure we pass the very concept of American greatness down to the next generation.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.
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