I just read the Bradley Foundation report on America’s National Identity, entitled E Pluribus Unum. It argues that “America is facing an identity crisis,” because we do not know enough information about our founders; students are not “taught about America’s great heroes, dramatic achievements and high ideals”; and “there’s too much attention paid these days to what separates different ethnic and racial groups and not enough to what they have in common.” (The last claim was tested in a Harris poll and drew the support of 80 percent of respondents, including majorities of Latinos and African Americans). The report bemoans a “tendency to separatism” — reflected in ethnic-themed residency halls — and a turn to global citizenship in place of the “distinctive features of American citizenship.”
I think there is a legitimate debate about the balance of unity and diversity in American culture. James Madison pointed out that “faction” (the development of separate interest groups) was an inevitable result of freedom and vitality. On the other hand, he also believed in the common good, “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Americans should be free and even eager to associate in groups with particular interests and values; but they should also have concern for the whole. If we lose the latter, we are in some danger.
To this extent, I can endorse the Bradley Report. But I am struck by its very weak and sloppy empirical basis.
The report says, “In the past, schools required an extended study of government. Today, high schools require one government course, compared with three before the 1960s.” The footnote cites me as one of the authors of the document on which this claim is based. Actually, we used an article by Richard Niemi and Julia Smith, which should have been consulted directly. In any case, the facts are quite otherwise. Schools used to offer as many as three courses on civics, one of which emphasized controversial contemporary issues and another, the role of active citizens in their communities. The one course that is left–and almost universally required–is the one that the Bradley report recommends, a course on American government. The shift has been away from controversy and toward unity.
As I’ve noted here before, we surveyed young Americans about the themes they remember studying most in American government and history courses (pdf). The three main themes were the Constitution and the American political system, “great American heroes and the virtues of the American system of government,” and wars and battles. Only 9 percent of young people recall any emphasis on “racism and other forms of injustice” in their social studies classes.
The Bradley Report asserts that today’s attitudes “represent a sea change,” but no historical data are offered as evidence.
It notes that Americans are racially segregated, but it blames colleges and universities for creating themed dorms. A tiny percentage of Americans are affected by these arrangements on our campuses. There is no mention of the dramatic resegregation of American k-12 schools.
The report uses a survey question to substantiate the claim that Americans are upset about ethnic separatism and multiculturalism, but there is no mention that alternative ideas were tested in the poll. For instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if majorities would assent to the proposition that economic inequality has driven a wedge among Americans and undermined national unity.
The report cites troubling statistics about Americans’ knowledge of the Constitution and American history. Ninety-nine percent of college seniors could identify Beavis and Butthead but fewer than one quarter could identify a major phrase from the Gettysburg Address. I think that’s bad, but I would note that Americans’ political knowledge has been remarkably stable for the 100 years. There is no evidence of decline, according to the most comprehensive study (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1997). Further, we do teach the Gettysburg Address and other founding documents. It is regrettable that Americans do not remember what they have studied, but that is true of biology and math as well as American history. It does not imply that schools have abandoned their traditional job of teaching any particular content area. In civics, NAEP scores are flat, which belies the claim of decline. But I can also say–as a member of the current NAEP Civics Committee–that decisions about how to define “proficient” and “advanced” performance on that test are casual and highly arbitrary. Thus I am never shocked to learn that most students don’t score at a “proficient” level.
Finally, the Bradley report notes that new immigrants score lower on the NAEP civics test than native-born American students and that immigrants are less likely to consider themselves “Americans” after they have been enrolled in American schools for four years. The NAEP results should be controlled for family income; I hypothesize that immigrant youth will score at least as high as native-born youth of the same socio-economic status. And the factoid about students’ attitudes should be put in context. There is a large body of evidence showing that young immigrants assimilate rapidly. I suspect that they temporarily feel “less American” after four years in school only because they realize how far they have to go to enter the economic and cultural mainstream, which is where many of them want to go.
It would be good to have a report on American citizenship that defended the conservative values of unity, tradition, and nationalism but that reflected careful scholarship and a weighing of evidence on all sides of the issue. Unfortunately, the Bradley Report isn’t that. It’s a good anthology of quotations from the founders but a weak exercise in social science.