The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) was founded in 1995 under the leadership of Lynne Cheney and Joe Lieberman to promote improved academic standards and greater accountability in the higher education community. Ms. Cheney, long one of my heroes for her tireless work in education and the arts, now serves as ACTA’s Chairman and has been an outspoken advocate for active governance on the part of university trustees and alumni in attacking the status quo of lower standards and lax accountability. Last summer, the ACTA released its report, “Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century” which, among its shocking findings, revealed that 81% of 556 randomly chosen seniors at 55 top-rated colleges and universities received a D or F on a high school level American history test, and the average score was 53%. I’ve seen the test and I can say without equivocation that these results should be worse than embarrassing to anyone associated with these schools. And yet, complacency was the word used to characterize the response by most of the administrators.
Thomas Jefferson admonished us long ago that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.” And the worst place in which to exhibit ignorance in a democratic republic is in the transmission of our common heritage and founding ideas. G. K. Chesterton defined education as simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. The Council on Civil Society has declared that a “basic responsibility of the school is cultural transmission, particularly a knowledge of the country’s constitutional heritage, an understanding of what constitutes good citizenship, and an appreciation of the society’s common civic faith and shared moral philosophy”.
A recent Portrait of America survey found that roughly one-half of American adults would vote for the U. S. Constitution if it was on the ballot today. To me, this is a frightening statistic, but not surprising, given the fact that Americans as a whole seem to have only a remote understanding of American civilization and our best and brightest have no sense of our history. How can we be knowledgeable critics of public policy or even sustain this experiment in self-governance in this environment?