The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

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Dumb and Dumber? What Are College Graduates Learning About Our Country?
Richard Brake - 05/05/10
Civic Literacy Report

The following piece by Dr. Richard Brake, cochair of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board, originally appeared on

For more details regarding ISI’s past and current civic literacy studies, and to take the test online, please go to

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) released its fourth annual national Civic Literacy report, entitled The Shaping of the American Mind: The Diverging Influences of the College Degree & Civic Learning on American Beliefs. In past studies, ISI broke new ground by demonstrating empirically the failures of colleges and universities to effectively teach their graduates the fundamentals of American history, government, foreign affairs, and economics.

On an individual level, less than 60 percent (sometimes far less) of college graduates can identify on a multiple-choice test the three branches of government; seminal passages from the Declaration of Independence and Gettysburg Address; basic events from the Revolutionary, Civil, and Vietnam Wars; and the primary features of our free-enterprise system. Several of these questions are actually required knowledge for new American citizens, signifying their relevance to what we as a nation demand for informed citizenship.

On an institutional level, ISI discovered that for many of our most elite schools, like Yale, Princeton, Duke, and my alma mater Georgetown, not only did they fail to get above a “D,” their seniors did worse than their freshmen on the same test—a phenomenon dubbed “negative learning.”

Conventional wisdom, along with the hard-earned savings of American families, has long supported the notion that “with more college comes more knowledge.” ISI’s research has punctured the validity of such simple claims, drawing back the curtain on academia’s Land of Oz to reveal the smoke and mirrors of a veritable vacuum of civic ignorance.

This got ISI to thinking: if college graduates aren’t learning about concrete aspects of the American republic, what else might they be picking up “civics-wise” while on campus? In particular, how might the college experience impact the attitudes and opinions of graduates toward America in general—its ideals and institutions—as well as some of the perennial issues that have dominated American education, culture, and public policy over the years.

For example, does earning a college degree influence whether a graduate believes that America (a) is a model of freedom and justice for the world, or (b) corrupts otherwise good people? By graduating from college, are you more or less likely to support abortion on demand or same-sex marriage? What about the contemporary relevance of the Ten Commandments or America’s founding documents? Does college make a citizen more certain that economic prosperity depends upon entrepreneurs and free markets, or that global capitalism produces only a few winners and many losers? Finally, does college push a graduate toward identifying more with the conservative/Republican end of the political spectrum, or the liberal/Democrat pole?

God and Man at Yale

Ever since William F. Buckley wrote God and Man at Yale in 1951, there has been a growing concern that college faculty are far more left-of-center than the American public and the students that they teach. Over the next half century, Buckley’s findings were first bolstered by a flood of anecdotal evidence alleging academic indoctrination; but by century’s end, these qualitative claims were being validated by sophisticated quantitative surveys (the most comprehensive being the North American Academic Study Survey [NAASS]) that proved beyond a doubt the professoriate’s overwhelming liberalism, particularly in the humanities and social science fields. For instance, the 1999 NAASS survey showed that in terms of partisanship and ideology, humanities faculty broke down 62 percent Democrat and 6 percent Republican, and 77 percent liberal and 8 percent conservative; social science’s breakdown was 55 percent Democrat and 7 percent Republican, and 66 percent liberal and 8 percent conservative. English faculty led the way in ideological imbalance with 69 percent Democrat versus 2 percent Republican, and 85 percent liberal versus 3 percent conservative. But they were followed closely by historians (70–4; 79–7) and political scientists (58–8; 79–2). Only economists exhibited some kind of ideological equity, with 36 percent being Democrat and 43 percent liberal, versus 17 percent Republican and 27 percent conservative.

Still, until this new survey by ISI, it was unclear scientifically whether this obvious ideological bias on the part of faculty spilled out into the classroom. Maybe faculty were liberal, but their professionalism prevented them from injecting their politics into their disciplinary subject matter?

So what does ISI’s new study reveal? How does college “Shape the American Mind”?

As one might suspect, the academy’s liberalism has not been value-neutral. On the contrary, when ISI held constant all other variables in a graduate’s background—like their age, race, income, gender, religion, etc.—and just looked at the independent impact of college, we discovered a clear leftward lurch. For example, on the issues front, college’s impact was almost exclusively on some of the most polarizing matters. Not only did college make a graduate more likely to support abortion-on-demand and same-sex marriage, but it made a person less likely to support prayer in schools, and remarkably, the notion that with hard work anyone can succeed in America. In terms of political self-identification, college made a person much more likely to label himself or herself as a liberal and a Democrat, ranking behind only race (minority), gender (female), and marital status (single) in its leftward influence. It is important to note that most college graduates are still skeptical of abortion on demand (only 21 percent approve) and same-sex marriage (only 39 percent approve), and they land squarely in the moderate/independent range. Clearly, there are other variables than college that influence a person’s overall political worldview. But what ISI’s research proves is that when people do attend college, their political attitudes and opinions begin to shift in an identifiably leftward direction, much more so if they had not decided to go to college in the first place.

Interestingly, scoring higher on ISI’s civic literacy test was found to have a very different impact on a person’s worldview. For instance, more knowledge about America did not seem to have any discernible impact one way or another on hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Instead, higher civic knowledge led individuals away from contentious social issues and toward more sympathetic perceptions of America in general, its founding documents, and its free-market economic institutions. Apparently, greater familiarity with America, instead of breeding contempt, actually fostered more respect for key elements of America’s free society.


In the end, America is a free country, and everyone is entitled to his or her particular political point of view, including and especially college professors and college graduates. And if colleges were adequately teaching their students America’s history and institutions, and the same leftward political influences were discovered, then it could be logically concluded that as citizens learned more about their country, this academic enlightenment leads naturally to liberal political enlightenment. But this peculiar combination of collegiate civic ignorance on the one hand, and collegiate liberalism on the other, suggests a wholly different story, one featuring academic neglect at best and political indoctrination at worst.

Clearly, American colleges and universities need to do a better job teaching the story of America’s free and prosperous representative democracy, and ISI’s civic literacy research would suggest that a good place to start would be (1) the return to a tried and true core curriculum, and (2) the restoration of intellectual pluralism—ideologically, methodologically, as well as demographically. Otherwise, it will be hard for the wizards of academia to escape the growing perception that all they are producing are a cadre of intellectual munchkins who share the wizards’ political views.

To take ISI’s civic literacy test online, go to

To learn more, visit the ISI short course on Higher Education.

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