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Shortchanging our students on history, civics

Even in the depths of the Great Depression, with the economy bottomed out, Americans showed they could still think big. In just over a year, constru ction crews built a land-mark that still stands proud, one recogniz-ed worldwide as a symbol of our country: the Empire State Building.

I recently visited the build-ing to speak to an enthusias-tic group of King's College students about the need to return to the principles of our Founding Fathers. Unfortuna-----tely, as a new study shows, many students simply aren't learning what makes America unique. In fact, what they are learning all too often helps divide rather than unite Americans.

This study, titled "The Shaping of the American Mind," is the latest in an annual series from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, where I'm proud to serve as a trustee.

There's no mystery as to why today's college seniors lack basic knowledge of American history and institutions. Previous ISI reports revealed that schools of higher learning aren't teaching these principles. At some elite universities the seniors know less than the freshmen. The reports also show that Americans agree colleges should teach students about our shared history and civic principles.

But does knowing the fundamental principles of "the American experiment" influence the beliefs of our citizens? That's what this year's report aimed to find out. ISI researchers directed 33 questions to a representa-tive sample of roughly 2,500 Americans. Many questions were taken from U.S. naturalization exams and high-school achievement tests. The report reached some important conclusions.

For example, even though colleges aren't teaching civic knowledge, it can be learned elsewhere: through religious institutions, patriotic organizations and books . And that leads to the report's second finding. Civic knowledge, however learned, has a broader and more diverse influence on Americans' thinking than college does. To cite one example, the report found that having more civic knowledge makes a person "more likely to agree that prosperity depends on entrepreneurs and free markets; but less likely to agree that the free market brings about full employment." In other words, civic knowledge seems to make one more pragmatic but not more dogmatic. Those are traits Americans will need if we're to pass along a better world to coming generations.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the report con-cluded that additional civic knowledge increases a per-son's belief in American ideals and institutions. The ISI sur-vey showed that, overall, "Six-ty-three percent of Americans disagree that America cor-rupts otherwise good people, 61 percent of Americans dis-agree that America's Found-ing documents are obsolete and 56 percent of Americans agree that prosperity depends upon entrepreneurs and free markets."

It further found that people with greater civic knowledge are less likely to believe that America corrupts otherwise good people, less likely to believe that the Founding documents are irrelevant, and more likely to believe that the free enterprise system works. As our economy works to recover from another meltdown, we need to keep thinking big. We need to help more Americans learn the basic principles of civil society. The way forward is in understanding our great shared history. When the Empire State Building opened, former New York Gov. Al Smith said it was "built by the brains, the brawn, the ingenuity and the muscle of mankind." The same applies to the United States. Let's make sure we pass the very concept of American greatness down to the next generation.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation.