ISI & the “civics crisis”

Is there bias in the newly-released Coming Crisis in Citizenship report, reflecting a possible conservative orientation of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)? These questions have been raised in a thread of an email list for professors of social studies education.

Perhaps ISI is a bit more salient to me since it’s headquartered maybe 15 miles from where I am sitting as I write this post. Anyway, it goes a long way toward answering questions about the ideological orientation of ISI if you remember their lists of the Fifty Worst Books and the Fifty Best Books of the twentieth century. The 5th-worst book is:

5. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916)

Dewey convinced a generation of intellectuals that education isn’t about anything; it’s just a method, a process for producing democrats and scientists who would lead us into a future that “works.” Democracy and Science (both pure means) were thereby transformed into the moral ends of our century, and America’s well-meaning but corrupting educationist establishment was born.

And the 3rd-best book of the 20th century is

3. Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952)

The haunting, lyrical testament to truth and humanity in a century of lies (and worse). Chambers achieves immortality recounting his spiritual journey from the dark side (Soviet Communism) to the-in his eyes-doomed West. One of the great autobiographies of the millennium.

ISI is actually on the intellectually respectable “highbrow” end of the spectrum of right-wing activist groups, but I’ve never seen them disavow the use of their work by the likes of Tony Perkins at the Family Research Council, as when Perkins trumpeted the “civics crisis” report on the FRC website (just browse his website to see the kinds of rhetoric and tactics that Perkins engages in).

Three years ago Perkins celebrated ISI in an email newsletter that gives a good summary of what they are about:

The Conservative Movement at 50

Yesterday, our friends at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) celebrated their 50th Anniversary. Founded by William F. Buckley, Jr. and the late Dr. Russell Kirk, the Institute has been working faithfully to raise up a generation of conservative leaders on American college campuses.

Today the Institute’s programs include student chapters, conferences and seminars, various periodicals, and a book publishing arm. In fact, Dr. Allan Carlson, FRC’s Distinguished Fellow for Family Policy Studies, has a newly released work from ISI Books, The American Way.

Harvard University’s Institute of Politics has just released a survey reporting that 61 percent of college students approve of President Bush’s job performance. The growth of conservatism on college campuses is a direct result of the half-century of work by ISI.

FRC values ISI as a strategic ally. The Witherspoon Fellowship, FRC’s student leadership program works closely with ISI in collaborative educational efforts. We look forward to working even more closely together in the next 50 years. Well done ISI. (Tony Perkins, Washington Update, October 24, 2003)

As for the “civics crisis” survey itself, the orientation seemed apparent right from the top of the story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which begins:

American colleges and universities are failing to instill “civic literacy” in their students, according to a new report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Most students who responded to a survey fumbled, the report says, when asked to name the final battle of the American Revolution (Yorktown) …

So, the “civic literacy” that we’re talking about is something that can be measured by success in the “name that battle” edition of trivial pursuit? This gets even goofier, as when the report argues that “non-elite” schools are doing better than “elite” schools, where students are said to exhibit “negative learning” over their college years, as evidenced by lower multiple choice scores for seniors as compared with freshman:

… when asked to pick the concluding battle of the American Revolution, Yorktown, seniors at Rhodes on average improved 12 percent over their freshman peers. At Grove City, seniors improved by an average of 8 percent. At Yale, however, seniors scored lower on average than freshmen by 9 percent, and at Georgetown they scored lower by 7 percent. In other words, learning at a non-elite school, Rhodes, exceeds that at Yale by a 21-point margin. (p. 12)

Actually, most of the questions are not so lame as that. They really could be indicators of things worth being concerned about. Even the Yorktown questions could be indicative of student knowledge of significant matters: for example, it seems plausible that students who can’t identify Yorktown as the final battle are also unaware of how the war in the colonies was decisively concluded as part of the intercontinental world war between the French and British colonial empires.

But the value placed on freshman-level name and date and phrase recognition suggests that it is this level of “knowledge” that is contemplated by the study and its sponsors. The report concludes that colleges need to require students to take more courses in history. If their data showed some correlation between course-taking and survey scores, they might have some support for this. It seems plausible to speculate, however, that the Yale students who are said to have undergone “negative learning” during their college years might actually include students who took rigorous and demanding courses from the best historians in the country, with a depth of historical inquiry that did not focus on the multiple-choice-test learning level of their high school courses.

Although they want students to take more courses in “history,” it is not clear that ISI wants college students taking courses in real history: i.e., history as it is known and practiced by real historians (such as the history professors at Yale, for example). What may be wanted, rather, is something more like the “traditional” history specified in the program funded by Senator Byrd’s legislation.

This survey is not the most impressive work sponsored or published by the ISI. Yet, it does include data that points to a situation that is worthy of concern. Moreover, the ISI has published a number of things that I think are worthwhile. I think I’ve bought a number of them in the Exhibit Hall at NCSS, although I don’t know if they exhibit there themselves.

Finally, as for the UConn group that conducted the study, I think this may be a renamed version of the group that did the survey for The Concord Review a few years ago which showed a decline over recent years in original historical research papers being done for high school history classes. Although the inference that this change has something to do with NCLB seems irresistable, there were no questions asked that would have generated data to directly support inferences about causation or even correlation with NCLB. I expect they do a competent job as far as sampling goes, but without any sense of the substance of what is being studied (cf. the issue mentioned above concerning history course-taking by respondents in the ISI study).

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One Comment

  1. James Akenson
    Posted October 6, 2006 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tony: Your blog is useful! I’m incorporating some of it onto some Power Point slides for my Educational Issues doctoral seminar. Take care, James


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