You’re proud to go to Brown, aren’t you? You revel in our open curriculum and its accompanying academic freedom and brag to your friends about our strong academic programs. But how would you feel if I told you Brown students know very little about civics?
In 2007, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute administered a basic American history, foreign affairs, economics, and government exam to 14,000 college students — half freshmen, half seniors — at 50 different schools. The average score for freshmen was 50.4 percent, but seniors did not do much better, with an average score of 54.2 percent. While the selective schools (such as Brown) surveyed in the study had higher average scores than the randomly selected schools did, students’ civics knowledge did not increase much between freshman and senior years. You might intuitively think Brown, with its activist student population, would have scored well on the exam, but no — Brown’s scores ranked 47th out of the 50 schools’ scores.
Isn’t that a little embarrassing for our school? Brown students champion their political causes by protesting and demonstrating yet are not well-informed about the foundations of the United States.
Perhaps it’s about time Brown started requiring civics classes. The Brown students who are American citizens are able to vote, and it makes practical sense for American voters to be well-educated about how the American government works. But required classes are antithetical to the academic freedom and fundamental libertarian philosophy of a Brown education. How, then, do we improve our poor civics knowledge without requiring civics classes?
Think of Brown’s incredibly popular classes — to name a few, ENGN 0090: “Management of Industrial and Nonprofit Organizations,” NEUR 0010: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience,” CSCI 0150: “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science,” and, in the olden days, POLS 0220: “City Politics.” What many of these successful and popular classes have in common is dynamic and engaging professors as well as interesting and useful course material. The most popular classes at Brown are competitive in the class market and have their ways of winning over shoppers.
The civics class would also have to be competitive in the class market. Its syllabus would have to be unique and interesting enough to catch shoppers’ attention, and a professor with a knack for breathing life into early American history would have to teach it. A successful, well-attended first semester would cement the civics course’s status as must-shop — and hopefully must-take.
But a course that focuses only on the Founding Fathers and the Constitution would be reductive, for the history of the United States is much richer than merely the history of its government. Many Brown students would rightfully take issue with the course if it did not consider the roles of Native Americans, poor free men, slaves, servants, women, and the like in shaping the beginnings of the United States. For this reason, I suggest that the class include in its syllabus some readings from Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” which provides a background of American history from the perspective of marginalized groups (and is a great read to boot). A qualified professor, an interesting syllabus, and readings from Zinn’s book are the ingredients for a civics class with high demand and participation.
On your next school break after taking this class, you can tell your friends how lucky you are to go to Brown — not just because of the open curriculum, but because you’re a more well-informed citizen.