Historical Literacy

To be ignorant of history, wrote Cicero, is to be a child forever. Centuries later, Thomas Jefferson admonished our young republic that freedom and ignorance can never exist together.

American higher education has generally abandoned its obligation to prepare graduates who have the knowledge and understanding to take up meaningful roles in our free society. ACTA is working hard to change that. Only 18% of colleges nationwide require the study of U.S. history or government, while even history major programs have dropped U.S. history requirements.

I am appreciative of your efforts to promote civic literacy and reinforce the importance of this educational foundation at the college level.

—Sandra Day O'Connor, former Associate Justice
United States Supreme Court

What We’re Doing

Combating Historical Amnesia

Our first task is to help the American public and higher education trustees and policymakers understand the extent of the problem. In 1999, ACTA commissioned the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut to survey seniors at the nation’s 55 most prestigious colleges and universities to see if they could answer basic questions on the nation’s history. These questions were typical of a standard high school curriculum, many of them replicating questions from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The shocking results—81% of these seniors from elite institutions received the equivalent of a “D” or “F”—would soon reverberate through the U.S. Capitol itself. On President’s Day of 2000, ACTA reported the findings in its report, Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century, with the endorsement of historian David McCullough. Congress moved quickly. On June 30 of that year, Concurrent Resolution 129 was introduced by Senator Joseph Lieberman on behalf of Senators Gorton, Smith, Cleland, Byrd, Conrad, Bennett, and Grams, and was unanimously adopted. It referenced ACTA’s survey. The Concurrent Resolution called for boards of trustees and college administrators, as well as state officials responsible for public higher education, to review their standards and add requirements for the study of United States history.

Publishing Resources

ACTA continues to monitor the state of historical knowledge among college students. The What Will They Learn?® project, which annually evaluates the core curriculum at over 1,100 colleges and universities, indicates which schools require U.S. government or history and which do not.

In 2016, we published No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major, revealing that less than one-third of the nation’s leading colleges and universities require students pursuing a degree in history to take a single course in American history.

ACTA has surveyed civic knowledge for over two decades and found that our colleges and universities have done a poor job of ensuring the civic literacy on which our nation depends. Our 2016 report A Crisis in Civic Education revealed that a majority of the four-year college graduates answering a multiple-choice survey were unable to identify the method for amending the Constitution or the process for presidential impeachment.

Nearly half of respondents failed to identify the correct term lengths for the houses of Congress. Ten percent thought that Judith Sheindlin—”Judge Judy”—is on the Supreme Court.

Engaging the Public, Trustees, and Policymakers

In 2008, ACTA coordinated the publication and release of E Pluribus Unum, a report by The Bradley Project designed to start a conversation about America’s national identity. In 2012, ACTA testified before Congress, endorsing the restoration of a day of commemoration on George Washington’s actual birthday. Through op-eds and newspaper opinion pieces, ACTA reminds the public of all that our nation loses if it forgets its past. We are in constant contact with trustees, making them aware of the need for a general education requirement that ensures all students have a basic understanding of this nation and its free institutions.


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Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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