Civic literacy for journalists

Liz Donovan posted on Infomaniac blog last week about a civics quiz that the National Civic Literacy board has been offering to college students with predictably humiliating results — college seniors average an “F” and even the best universities score no better than a “D+.”

Like most infogeeks, I took the quiz myself (scoring a little higher than 86). I then administered it to students in my editing class, who are mostly juniors and seniors with a couple sophomores sprinkled in. The students averaged 54.85%, placing them just barely in the top half relative to seniors at universities covered in the study.

The quiz strikes me as fair. The questions would likely stump many people, and I wouldn’t argue that most Americans should be conversant in Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville. However, a college-educated person should be able to at least earn a “C.”

In class, we took the opportunity to critique the quiz on several points.

For example, current freshmen are compared to current seniors and the difference is cited as “value” added by the school. The comparison isn’t valid. In fact, it could easily be that a university has tightened its standard to admit more intelligent students in the freshman class than it had in the senior class.

The study also seems to suggest that students underperform today relative to students of years gone by. However, this study presents no actual evidence on that point.

The board itself has also been criticized in The Huffington Post as a politically conservative organization out “to prove that our colleges and universities (read: those bastions of liberalism) are failing to deliver.”

Politics and flaws aside, the study does point out that contemporary students simply are not graduating with a level of civic understanding that many people would consider adequate with regard to America’s history, its philosophical foundations, its legal framework, the interaction of its various governmental branches and the basics of its economic operation.

The question is, what do we do about it?

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This blog is maintained by Dr. Matthew M. Reavy as a service to journalism students at the University of Scranton.

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