Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Bad Citizen in Chief

You might remember the Intercollegiate Study Institute. They’re a particular favorite of Mark Hyman and the folks at “The Point.” You might remember that about a year ago, they did a series in which they sung the praises of the ISI’s criticisms of higher education while never mentioning the organization’s clearly stated conservative agenda.

Hyman returns to them again, this time touting a recent study by the ISI purportedly showing that America’s colleges and universities are doing little, if anything, to improve students’ understanding of civics.

The study asked thousands of college students questions the ISI claimed tested their basic knowledge of American history and politics. The results were dismal, with students getting barely over half the questions right.

Sounds bad, but there are an number of problems with the study. First, we don’t know what those questions actually asked, because the ISI hasn’t released them. Given ISI’s stated right-wing agenda, it’s possible that questions were frame in a politically biased way, with answers that weren’t Right not considered right.

Also, Hyman claims the students were randomly selected. They weren’t. Apparently at one campus, students were bribed with the possibility of winning an iPod to participate. Reportedly, a student simply filled out the survey randomly so that he could be entered in the drawing.

The ISI also doesn’t say how many students from various schools were selected. While claiming the ability to rank schools on the basis of the results, it may very well be that some schools had hundreds of students taking the survey, while only a handful took it at other schools, thereby making the results invalid, at least in terms of comparisons.

Plenty has already been pointed out about the suspect motivations of ISI and the glaring errors in methodology, errors that Hyman glosses over or actually misrepresents. Even officials at the university that placed first in the ISI study dismissed the survey as bogus.

You’ll get no argument from me that college students should know more about history and civics than they do. It’s just another case for a strong liberal arts education, something near and dear to my own heart.

But let’s not confuse the ability to answer a multiple choice quiz with the ability to be a good citizen. After all, which is more important in being an informed voter: knowing which Amendment to the Constitution enfranchised women to vote, or having the critical thinking skills to detect propaganda techniques in political ads?

Even if the ISI study were a masterpiece of the survey-writer’s art, it only tests basic fact regurgitation. And while I’m all for being up on names, dates, and other such things, an ability to do this shouldn’t be confused with higher order mental skills involving synthesizing information, making comparisons, and reasoning through arguments.

To put it another way, Ken Jennings is a bright guy, but he ain’t no Einstein. There’s a world of difference between cleaning up on Jeopardy and coming up with the theory of relativity. The analogy is a stretch, admittedly, but you get my point: mastering trivia isn’t the same thing as mastering thinking.

Moreover, to the extent college students are uninformed about basic civics, can we really blame colleges and universities? Michael Berube has a clever post on his blog pointing out that the blame might lie elsewhere. To give you a hint of what he’s getting at, try answering these seemingly obvious civics questions—at least obvious before January of 2001:

True or false: American citizens have a right to not have the government spy on their private conversations.

True or false: In American jurisprudence, defendants are guaranteed a right to a lawyer, a speedy trial, and to see the evidence against them.

True or false: Congress has the sole power to declare war.

True or false: A Constitutionally mandated role of the Congress is to serve as a check on the Executive branch.

True or false: Identifying an undercover intelligence agent of the United States is a crime.

True or false: All Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, or county of residence in the state of Florida, have a Constitutionally guaranteed right to have their vote counted.

True or false: The role of the president is to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

True or false: The United States government does not engage in torture.

Should it surprise us that young people who have become politically aware in the last five years might not be up to speed on basic civics?

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 4.88


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