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May 2014 Brief: Volume 21, Number 15

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The Decline of Civic Education and the Liberal Arts


by John Hendrickson


Higher education faces many problems today, but one of the most serious problems is the decline in traditional liberal arts curriculum. This is especially true when examining the alarming crisis in civic education. Anne D. Neal, President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), recently described this trend when she wrote:


Surveys, including those from elite institutions, show that college graduates are woefully ignorant when it comes to both fundamental academic skills and to the very basics of citizenship. They don’t know the term lengths of members of Congress, and they can’t even identify the general at the Battle of Yorktown or the father of the United States Constitution.[1]


The traditional liberal arts curriculum includes courses in “Composition, Literature, intermediate-level Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural or Physical Science.”[2] Regrettably, the liberal arts curriculum is in decline and it is even worse for courses in United States History, United States Government, and Western Civilization, as many colleges do not require students to take any of these essential classes. In fact, ACTA’s “What Will They Learn” provides a great tool to assess the curriculums of many colleges and universities in what type of courses are required.[3] Although many colleges and universities, both public and private, still promote a broad liberal arts education, it has become a “cafeteria” style selection of choosing from a variety of courses to meet graduation requirements. In January ACTA released their report Education or Reputation? A Look at America’s Top-Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges and found that this trend is continuing:


Many universities now give the appearance of providing a core curriculum because they require students to take courses in several subject areas other than their majors — often called ‘distribution requirements.’ But these are ‘requirements’ in name only, typically giving students dozens or even hundreds of ‘distributional’ courses from which to choose.[4]


In addition, “some Governors and schools are taking a narrow and rigidly vocational view of higher education — one that steers students toward high-demand majors and preprofessional programs at the expense of a wider liberal arts background.”[5] One example of this is the increased focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) related programs. Although both courses in STEM and preprofessional programs are important, they should not crowd out the traditional liberal arts curriculum. The purpose of a liberal arts education “is a program of study that includes the fundamentals of key academic disciplines, the understanding of which facilitates all future learning.”[6] The purpose of higher education — whether it is in the liberal arts or even a technical program — is to ensure “a core of fundamental knowledge, and college-level skills in areas critical to good citizenship, workforce participation, and lifelong learning.”[7]


Norm Augustine, who served as a former Under Secretary of the Army and is retired as Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, wrote about the importance of studying history. Augustine argues that history is essential not just for good citizenship and respect for the past, but it also imparts “critical thinking, research skills, and the ability to communicate clearly and cogently.”[8] Augustine also argues:


In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80,000 engineers, I can testify that most were excellent engineers — but the factor that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.[9]


This is exactly the goal and objective of a true liberal arts curriculum.


Colleges and universities are also suffering from the ideologies of political correctness and the domination of liberalism and socialism on many campuses. As the ACTA report states, “students are not learning how to think, but what to think.”[10] One of the major tragedies at many colleges is the emphasis on preparing students to be “global citizens.”[11] In February in a speech honoring President George Washington’s birthday, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia warned about the decline in civic education, religious ideals, and republican spirit.[12] Justice Scalia was quoted as stating that what he worries “most about is…the decline of the republican spirit,” and “it doesn’t exist in our people with a vigor that used to exist.”[13] The decline of the traditional liberal arts curriculum along with the crisis in civic education is a detriment to our nation. As Patrick J. Buchanan warned in The Death of the West, “destroy the record of a people’s past, leave it in ignorance of who its ancestors were and what they did, and one can fill the empty vessels of their souls with a new history…”[14]



[1] Anne D. Neal, “Foreword,” in Education or Reputation? A Look at America’s Top-Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, January 2014, <> accessed on April 15, 2014.
[2] American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Education or Reputation? A Look at America’s Top-Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges, January 2014, p. 6. <> accessed on April 15, 2014.
[3] American Council of Trustees and Alumni, “What Will They Learn: A Guide to What College Rankings Don’t Tell You,” <> accessed on April 15, 2014.
[4] Education or Reputation?, p. 5.
[5] Ibid., p. 1.
[6] Ibid., p. 5.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Norm Augustine, “The Education Our Economy Needs,” The Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2011, <> accessed on April 15, 2014.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Education or Reputation?, p. 17.
[11] Peter Wood, “The World Citizen on Campus,” National Review Online, March 14, 2014, <> accessed on April 11, 2014.
[12] Josh Blackman, “Justice Scalia on the Importance of ‘the Republican Spirit’ and Civic Education,” Library of Law and Liberty, February 21, 2014, <> accessed on April 15, 2014.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2002, p. 147.


John Hendrickson is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact him at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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