If Todd Letimore ever thought the founding documents of the United States of America were simply pieces of history, he's long since left that notion behind.
At the "Constitutional Convention" for Philadelphia's new Constitution High School, Todd and the rest of the inaugural ninth-grade class argued passionately as they set up the school's government. ("The only stipulation was they could not vote me out of office," Principal Thomas Davidson says with a laugh.)
His social studies class is like no class he's had before, Todd says. "We're actually interacting and learning – we actually get a chance to debate and say if we disagree, instead of just sitting there and writing all day."
Part of a growing network of history-focused high schools around the country, it's just one of the creative initiatives under way to equip young people to engage more effectively in American democracy.
Particularly with today's influx of immigrants, "it's important ... to provide some kind of unifying thread, so that students don't simply stay in their own ethnic enclaves ... but understand that there's a similarity among all groups and a shared knowledge of America's past," says Michael Serber, education coordinator at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York, a partner with Constitution High School. Improving history education is also a critical citizenship requirement, he says. "If you're going to deal with issues today, how can you not understand the issues from yesterday?"
According to a recent report, the lack of knowledge about US history, politics, and economics among college students amounts to a "crisis." That alarm sounds periodically, and it's spurring a wide range of responses – some of which simply give better opportunities to students whose civic impulses already run deep. For example:
•Legislation introduced recently in the US House and Senate would establish the nation's first Public Service Academy. Students at the college would have their education subsidized by the federal government in exchange for five years of service in government or nonprofit jobs after graduation. The idea came from former Teach for America participants Chris Myers Asch and Shawn Raymond.
•Texas Christian University in Fort Worth has established a Center for Civic Literacy, which brings together students, faculty, and community members to shape local public policy.
•The School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, recently joined a number of elite law schools by expanding its loan-forgiveness program for graduates who take public-service or advocacy jobs. The program covers up to $100,000 in debts for qualifying students.
•The New School, a university in New York City, just launched the Riggio Writing and Democracy Program. Undergraduate students in one of the courses next semester will write constitutional amendments and argue their merits before the class.
The latest group to examine college students' grasp of civics is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a nonprofit in Wilmington, Del., that promotes education about the nation's "founding principles." In a test of 14,000 college students, freshmen and seniors on average answered only half of the 60 multiple-choice questions correctly. The report recommends that more universities require such core courses as American history, political science, and economics. And it notes that students who take such courses are more likely to vote, volunteer, or join political campaigns.
"The study of the practice of democracy in our country ... is a foundational study that needs to be assured for every [college] student," says ISI senior vice president Michael Ratliff, a retired US Navy Rear Admiral. "We don't want a federal fiat that requires 'X' course ... but colleges and universities need to engage and ensure a balanced education."
Some educators, however, argue that the focus shouldn't be on multiple-choice tests, but on what citizenship skills students are taught that will last a lifetime. "There's nothing inherently wrong or right with core courses; it just depends on how they're conceived. If it's just simply throwing names and dates at them, most of that's going to disappear by the time they graduate," says Robert Polito, director of the Writing and Democracy Program at The New School.
One skill at the center of the program Mr. Polito directs is "close reading," which teaches students the importance of keeping certain questions in mind when reading everything from historical documents to financial news. For example: What's the author's purpose and context? What's the significance of specific words?
It's empowering for students to discover texts this way, Polito says. "Poems, stories, speeches, and documents like the Constitution are all examples of rhetoric. And students need to know how to engage and respond to those different rhetorics."
Zia Jaffrey, a writer with experience around the world, is currently teaching a nonfiction workshop in the program. As she strives to have her students incorporate broader political themes into their writing, she's finding that some resist, and some don't know where to start. "My thing with students is for them to get out of themselves," she says. But it's difficult, she adds, because she's up against a culture that emphasizes celebrity and narcissism.
The course lit a fire under Chiara Fudge, a junior at The New School and an aspiring novelist. She says her parents' service in the military (including her father's duty in the 1991 Gulf War) left her with mixed emotions about US policies. "I kind of stepped away from really getting involved with politics, but now I know that I have to," she says. "We don't live in a bubble.... Everything that happens to your neighbor ... affects all of us."
When she talks to friends outside of New York, she's frustrated that they seem to be absorbing a message from society that she sums up as: "Make money, look great, and you'll rise to the top." But in the Writing and Democracy Program, she says, she feels better equipped to effect change. "It's important for someone like myself who's passionate to say something and maybe inspire someone else to get involved."
Turning away from rote learning is also the approach at Constitution High School. With 90-minute classes there's time for regular local field trips, says principal Davidson. Partners such as the National Constitution Center provide unique learning opportunities, and each year the students will engage in a public service project.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute provides lesson plans and brings some of its 60,000 primary documents to schools. On its website (www.gilderlehrman.org), students can read and compare wartime letters from the Revolutionary War all the way up to the current conflict in Iraq.
"The goal is not to have the teacher just cover history," Mr. Serber says, "but to help the students discover history."
On a recent test designed to measure knowledge of American history, civics, and economics, college freshmen and seniors scored an average of 51.7 percent and 53.2 percent respectively – failing grades. Here are a few of the multiple-choice questions. We have permission to show you the correct answers, but not all the choices, as some students are still being tested.
Question: In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a series of government programs that became known as ...
Answer: the New Deal.
Comment: Freshmen and seniors scored highest on this: 83.4 percent of the seniors and 80.7 percent of freshmen got it right.
Q: During which period was the American Constitution amended to guarantee women the right to vote?
Comment: Seniors scored 58.4 percent, freshmen 59.4 percent.
Q: According to 'just war' theory, a just war requires which of the following?
A: the authority of a legitimate sovereign.
Comment: Only 15.6 percent of students answered this one right – the lowest score.
Q: Which of the following was an alliance to resist Soviet expansion?
A: North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Comment: The combined total percent who answered correctly was 45.5.
Q: Which of the following is the best measure of production or output of an economy?
A: Gross Domestic Product.
Comment: Freshmen scored 68.9 percent and seniors scored 74.4 percent.
Source: Intercollegiate Studies Institute