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June 2017 Brief: Volume 24, Number 18

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Should Iowa High School Students be Required to Pass the U.S. Citizenship Exam Before They Graduate?


by John Hendrickson



Joe Foss Institute and its Civic Education Initiative are working to reverse the unfortunate trend of declining civic education.[1] In our technology-driven society, most attention is given to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs and preparing students to pass standardized exams, while other parts of the curriculum, such as history and government, suffer. The Civic Education Initiative has been enacted by 16 states, which now require students to pass a basic civics test before graduation. Policymakers in Iowa should consider implementing the Civic Education Initiative and requiring high school students to pass a basic civics exam in order to graduate.


In 1838, a young Abraham Lincoln argued that Americans should have “a reverence for the Constitution.”[2] In addition, Lincoln argued that the founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, needed to be not only respected, but also understood to have a moral and civil society. Lincoln referred to this as the “political religion” of our nation and argued that these values and principles should be proclaimed throughout the nation.[3]


In his “Farewell Address to the Nation,” President Ronald Reagan warned “of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in the erosion of the American spirit.”[4] Unfortunately, Reagan’s warning is all too realistic with the current decline in civic education across the board. It is a long-term trend that our nation’s students, as well as the general population, are becoming increasingly ignorant about basic American history and government.


A report issued by American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) brings further attention to the crisis in civic education. In “A Crisis in Civic Education,” ACTA reveals that our educational system is failing to teach American history and government:


There is a crisis in American civic education. Survey after survey shows that recent college graduates are alarmingly ignorant of America’s history and heritage . . . A recent survey by ACTA of over 1,100 liberal arts colleges and universities found that only a handful — 18 percent — require students to take even one survey course in American history or government before they graduate.[5]


The ACTA report, along with other studies from reputable organizations such as Intercollegiate Studies Institute, provides numerous examples from exams which demonstrate this crisis in civic education. Many colleges and universities will argue they are instilling civic-minded values in their students through requiring students to volunteer for community service, or what is commonly called “service learning.” Many colleges and universities are suffering from the ideologies of globalization, political correctness, multiculturalism, radical secularism, and relativism, among others. As a consequence, students are not learning about the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, or other crucial aspects of American history and Western civilization. In addition, students are often inundated with multiculturalism and told they need to be prepared to be “global citizens,” while they learn nothing about American history, government, and what it means to be an American citizen. As the ACTA report states:


Instead of demanding content-based coursework, our institutions have, in too many places, supplanted the rigorous study of history and government — the building blocks of civic engagement — with community-service activities. These programs may be wholesome, but they give students little insight into how our system of government works and what roles they must fill as citizens of a democratic republic.[6]


National Association of Scholars (NAS) issued a similar report, “The Vanishing West, 1964-2010: The Disappearance of Western Civilization from the American Undergraduate Curriculum.”[7] The NAS report focuses on the decline of courses on Western civilization and American history as requirements for graduation. The study argues that while Western civilization and American history courses are on the decline, courses in world history, globalization, and sustainability are on the rise.[8]


The national decline of civic education is leading the nation down a path of self-destruction. To confront the policy challenges of today, citizens must understand our history and government. It is also a moral responsibility. Individuals, communities, schools, civic groups, and even businesses all need to realize the importance of civic education. Learning about American history and government does not only lead to good citizenship. Studying the liberal arts/humanities in general is fundamental to developing a well-rounded education.


The decline of civic education is a moral crisis that must be solved. In The Death of the West, Patrick J. Buchanan wrote:


How does one sever a people’s roots? Answer: Destroy its memory. Deny a people the knowledge of who they are and where they came from . . . 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 . . .[9]


The Founding Fathers understood the importance of learning history, and the Civic Education Initiative is a step in the right direction in reversing this great moral problem of civic ignorance.



[1] For more information on Joe Foss Institute, visit, <> accessed on May 22, 2017; for the Civic Education Initiative, visit, <> accessed on May 22, 2017.
[2] Abraham Lincoln, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838,” in Abraham Lincoln: Great Speeches, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1991, p. 8.
[3] Ibid., p.5.
[4] Ronald Reagan, “Farewell Address to the Nation,” January 11, 1989, in Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1989, p. 417.
[5] American Council of Trustees and Alumni, “A Crisis in Civic Education,” American Council of Trustees and Alumni, January 2016, Washington, D.C., p. 1., <> accessed on May 19, 2017.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Glenn Ricketts, Peter W. Wood, Stephen H. Balch, and Ashley Thorne, “The Vanishing West, 1964-2010: The Disappearance of Western Civilization from the American Undergraduate Curriculum,” The National Association of Scholars, <> accessed on May 23, 2011.
[8] Ibid., pp. 15-19.
[9] 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, Muscatine, 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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