Civics report need not be taken seriously

A recent survey by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative think tank, purports to reveal something frightful about the worth of a Yale education. Apparently, it’s not worth much, because Yale graduates have proven themselves embarrassingly and dangerously ignorant of American history, according to recent ISI research.

The report points out the interesting fact that Yale freshmen actually know slightly more about their civic heritage than Yale seniors; being on-campus, it seems, makes students forget whence they came, as Yale does not mandate that students take American history in order to graduate.

The ISI study highlights an indisputable fact about Yale: The University does not unduly emphasize the study of American history over say, the study of calculus or English composition. Yale has a more stringent foreign language requirement than it does a civics requirement. As a result, not every Yale student can answer questions about the Lincoln-Douglas debates or the Keynesian position on recessions.

ISI’s argument is that those ignorant of U.S. history and institutions are ill-informed citizens. But, not every Yale student is able to take the derivative of x, identify what compound NaCl is, or find Afghanistan on a world map, arguably skills of more importance in our globalizing world. Is ISI’s argument that civics are more important than math a valid one?

The irony of Yale’s requirement of foreign language proficiency but no similar proficiency in the vernacular of American civics is no small irony, given that the rationale for learning a second language is that we are better enabled to engage in that society. But it’s an irony we, unlike ISI, are content to overlook.

Knowing which document in our history guarantees us freedom from state religion surely makes us better and more informed citizens, but so would understanding the economic challenges of living in an inner city far from a supermarket, or knowing about the impact of our foreign policy on those living in countries that receive foreign aid. Educated students should know the principles on which our country was founded, but we would argue that understanding the nation’s contemporary political and economic challenges is an equally if not more important criterion for being an educated member of our society.

Yale’s model of emphasizing broad exposure to various disciplines, rather than some narrow, one-size-fits-all curriculum, thus does give its students a solid foundation for engaging with life outside the classroom. Whether Yale students will choose to work in public service or political advocacy is another question, but Yale’s broad-minded approach to a curriculum surely gives us the tools needed to do so, should we choose.

ISI’s breathless report, focusing as it does on the lessons students need to learn, rather than the problems we need to address, can and should therefore be disregarded. So if you read any of the dour news about last week’s report, don’t be too down: Our curriculum still offers the keys to success.

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