Colorado news outlets failed to identify conservative activist group behind "civic literacy" study


Colorado media outlets reported on a recent survey that claimed higher education was failing to teach students "civic literacy." But none of the outlets identified the survey's sponsor as a right-wing activist organization that lists "limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, free market economy, and moral norms" as its core values.

KUSA 9News, KDVR Fox 31's Good Day Colorado, The Denver Post, The Gazette of Colorado Springs, The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction, and KCNC CBS4 all recently reported on a survey that claimed to find U.S. higher education has failed to teach "civic literacy," citing results such as college students' allegedly poor knowledge of U.S. history. But each news outlet neglected to report that the survey's sponsor, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), is a right-wing activist organization that lists its core values as "limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, free market economy, and moral norms."

9News identified ISI only as "a non-profit educational group" on its September 27 broadcast, during which 9News anchor Kyle Dyer interviewed retired Lt. Gen. Josiah Bunting III, chairman of ISI's National Civic Literacy Board. On its website, 9News referred to ISI as "a Delaware-based non-profit." During its September 27 broadcast, Fox 31 simply referred to the sponsor of the study as "a national institute" but named ISI on its website. On September 26, the Post identified ISI only as the institute that "contracted with the University of Connecticut to conduct the three-year study." In a September 28 editorial, Grand Junction's The Daily Sentinel commented on the survey, naming its sponsor but also failing to fully identify ISI. And on September 29, The Gazette of Colorado Springs published an Associated Press article -- which The Daily Sentinel and KCNC also published on their websites -- that failed to mention ISI, instead naming the source of the report as "the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy."

The report, titled "The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education's Failure to Teach America's History and Institutions," purported to have found "scientific evidence" of a "crisis" in U.S. higher education after administering and analyzing surveys, including a 60-question multiple-choice exam section, to over 14,000 students at 50 colleges. The survey results purportedly indicate a low level of "civic literacy," which ISI defined as knowledge of United States history, government, and foreign relations, as well as "the market economy." The study claimed that "[i]f the survey were administered as an exam in a college course, seniors would fail with an overall average score of 53.2 percent, or F on a traditional grading scale."

The study also ranked the 50 colleges by "the value added to students' learning of America's history and institutions during the baccalaureate"; in other words, ISI ranked the schools exclusively based on how seniors scored on the exam portion of the survey compared to how freshmen scored, and not according to the schools' overall performance scores. Out of the top 10 ranked colleges, six are Christian faith-based schools. The chairman of ISI's board of trustees, J. Bayard Boyle Jr., also is a trustee of the study's top-ranked school, Rhodes College (Memphis, Tennessee). The third-ranked school, Calvin College (Grand Rapids, Michigan), is the alma mater of Richard DeVos, chairman of the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, which has contributed around $1 million to ISI since 1998.

Besides omitting this background, the news reports also emphasized the study's measure of American history and politics while failing to note that the multiple-choice questions, according to the report's executive summary, also focused on "the market economy" as one of the "four subject areas." Sample questions were included with some of the national media reports and on the report's website, but ISI has only posted a list of 60 civic literacy "question themes," and not the questions themselves.

The Institute evolved from two groups founded by well-known conservative writers and activists William Bennett and Irving Kristol. Appended to its mission statement, ISI lists "The Principles of a Free Society," "six values [which] represent the core beliefs inherent in ISI's mission and its activity": limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, free market economy, and moral norms. Regarding "moral norms," ISI explains, "The values, customs, conventions, and norms of the Judeo-Christian tradition inform and guide a free society. Without such ordinances, society induces its decay by embracing a relativism that rejects an objective moral order."

A 1999 article about conservative activism on college campuses reported:

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)...funds more than 60 "alternative" (i.e. conservative) newspapers at top colleges around the country, as well as the aforementioned Campus ["a nationally distributed conservative newspaper"], which has a circulation of 250,000 and a cover price of $0. Along with similar organizations, most notably the Young America's Foundation (YAF), ISI pays for prominent conservative speakers like Dinesh D'Souza and Oliver North to speak at campuses across the country, arranges all-expenses-paid organizing seminars for conservative students and funds a number of student fellowships. Located on private estates named after benefactor F.M. Kirby, both ISI and YAF operate with budgets estimated to be upwards of $5 million.


Both ISI and YAF are funded primarily by conservative individuals and foundations, including such prominent names as conservative philanthropist and anti-Clinton crusader Richard Mellon Scaife, whose foundations donated a whopping $925,000 to ISI in 1997.

According to Media Transparency, in recent years ISI has continued receiving Scaife funding, including $450,000 in 2005, of which $100,000 was designated for the "Civic Literacy Project." And, in 2004 the Scaife foundations (Alleghany, Carthage, and Sara Scaife) gave ISI $475,000. In addition, ISI has received funds from the Castle Rock Foundation, the giving arm of the conservative Coors family of Colorado; foundation board member Holly Coors also sits on ISI's board of trustees. Other donations have come from major conservative foundations such as the John M. Olin Foundation, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Koch family foundations.

ISI's president, T. Kenneth Cribb, who served eight years in the Reagan administration, published an essay in 1990 in ISI's journal, The Intercollegiate Review, in which he denounced "relativism":

The great enemy of enculturation is relativism, an enemy that has stalked the corridors of the academy for years, but the echoes of those footsteps resound as never before. Of the strains of academic relativism, two of the most virulent are relativism as among cultures and relativism as among standards.

Cribb specifically censured Stanford University for replacing "its required course on Western culture with a new course featuring works by women and minorities and stressing non-Western accomplishments."

Cribb is also president of Collegiate Network, Inc., an organization that supports conservative student-run campus newspapers and boasts such famous alumni as right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, Hoover Institution fellow Dinesh D'Souza, and National Review editor Rich Lowry.

From the September 27, broadcast of KUSA's 9News 5 a.m.:

KYLE DYER: A new study is out this morning that is critical of higher education. Fifty top colleges and universities, including CU-Boulder, were checked to see how they're doing at teaching fundamental, basic facts about Americans' history and institutions. Now, the survey was done by a non-profit educational group which is called the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and this morning Cy Bunting from the Institute is with us to share the results. Good morning, Cy.

JOSIAH BUNTING: Good morning, Kyle. How are you?

DYER: Good. What prompted you all to do this study? Had you been fearing the worst and you wanted to see if your fears were true?

BUNTING: We started this study three years ago because such a study has never been done before in a comprehensive and scientific way. We had the same sense many people do that the colleges are failing to teach the fundamentals of American history and related subjects. We looked at 50 colleges around the country, and we found that our hunches were confirmed that these kids basically are not learning the core staples of a good civic education, by which I mean U.S. history, U.S. foreign policy, political philosophy, economics. The colleges talk about how they offer this, but very few of them follow through. And when you consider that most of these graduates, particularly of the very good schools, are going to go on to prominent careers as leaders, many in government, it's a fairly frightening prospect.

DYER: That's very disturbing, most certainly. Did you contact the individual schools that did better or worse? And how did CU-Boulder do?

BUNTING: We did. We ranked them, just like U.S. News and World Report. We found that the bottom 16 of our schools, which include a number of famous names around the country, actually exhibited the phenomenon we call "negative learning," which is a fairly horrifying statistic. In other words, the seniors did worse on these basic tests than freshman did. Your daughter goes to a place like Yale, let us say, and she knows less about these subjects as a senior than she did as a freshman. So, this is a real crisis. And prestige as a criterion for admission doesn't really pay off. I might mention that, although nobody did very well, two of the Colorado schools were in our top five.


BUNTING: Colorado State University and the University of Colorado at Boulder both did relatively well.

DYER: Well, that's good news. But still a really disturbing finding. Thank you for sharing --

BUNTING: Very disturbing.

DYER: -- the results with us. And hopefully the schools will learn and make some changes.

BUNTING: We hope so. We hope so. Thank you.

DYER: Thank you, Cy, we appreciate it. Isn't that scary that seniors know less than incoming freshmen?

GARY SHAPIRO: That is kind of bizarre, isn't it? Yeah. I'm not sure how that works, but, yeah. OK.

From the September 27, 5 a.m. broadcast of KDVR Fox 31's Good Day Colorado:

STEVE KELLEY: What does this say about American education? A national institute just quizzed 14,000 students at 50 schools across America, including CU and CSU, about our government, our history, and our dealings with the world.

SHAUL TURNER: Nationally, seniors got only 53 percent of the questions right. Freshmen 52 percent. Guess what? That's a failing grade. Freshmen at CU and CSU were worse, scoring an average of 40 percent, while seniors were in the 50 percent range.

KELLEY: So, how hard were the questions? Decide for yourself. We've got a few examples here for you.

TURNER: OK. Here it goes. Now, question one: The idea that in America there should be a wall of separation between church and state appears in: A. George Washington's farewell address; B. the Mayflower Compact; C. the Constitution; or D. the Declaration of Independence. Or E. Thomas Jefferson's letters.

KELLEY: I'm going to say E.

TURNER: OK. You're right. Answer's E. Thomas Jefferson's letters.

KELLEY: I cheated because I looked in the thing.

TURNER: I know you cheated.

KELLEY: OK. Here's another one.

TURNER: I just wasn't going to say anything.

KELLEY: The phrase that "we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal" is from: A. the Federalist Papers; B. the Preamble to the Constitution; C. the Communist Manifesto; D. the Declaration of Independence; or E. the inscription on the Statue of Liberty.

TURNER: OK. I can see the answer so I'm not going to guess.

KELLEY: D. The Declaration of Independence, of course.

TURNER: Right. All right. We've got another one coming along here. So we'll come back to that one in just a little while. But, if you would like to see all the questions that were on this little test, you can go to our website and click on the Good Day tab. You can get the whole test and take it. See how you score. Hopefully it's above 40 to 50 percent.

KELLEY: A Wednesday quiz.


KELLEY: A little pop quiz for you on MyFox.

From Karissa Marcum and Jennifer Brown's September 26 Post article, "U.S. history a mystery to college freshman [sic], seniors" :

A glimmer of good news is that seniors at Colorado's two public-research universities had higher scores than freshmen who took the 60-question quiz, contrasting with some of the nation's elite institutions where freshmen scored better.

But that's not much to brag about, because students at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University still got failing grades, according to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which contracted with the University of Connecticut to conduct the three-year study released Tuesday.

From the September 28 editorial in The Daily Sentinel, "Higher ed flunks history":

Perhaps it's too much to expect most college students in this country to know during which quarter century in our nation's history the U.S. Constitution was amended to give women the right to vote.

But really, shouldn't we expect them to know that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence?

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute believes so, which is why it recommended that colleges and universities across the country examine their history and civics curricula to ensure students are learning American history, not just world culture or business management.

The recommendations follow a survey conducted by ISI, in cooperation with the University of Connecticut. It asked 60 multiple-choice questions of 14,000 randomly selected freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities around the country. It found that seniors answering questions dealing with issues like those mentioned above were correct on average 53.2 percent of the time. That's a failing grade by any measure.

Freshmen did slightly worse, scoring 51.5 percent correct. Even more astonishing, in some of the nation's premier schools such as Georgetown and Yale, seniors fared worse than freshmen on the quiz.

The study will no doubt occasion much hand-wringing about the dismal state of history education in this country. Let's hope it also encourages higher education institutions to follow ISI's recommendations to improve historical knowledge. It's hard to expect U.S. citizens to make informed decisions about the nation's future if they don't know how we got where we are today.

The Associated Press article, "Students know little about U.S. history," published in the September 29 edition of The Gazette of Colorado Springs:

University of Colorado seniors who were asked introductory-level questions about U.S. history, government and the economy answered correctly less than half the time, according to a new study.

Nationwide, college seniors got just 53.2 percent of the 60 multiple-choice answers correct, according to Tuesday's report from the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy. At Colorado, the school's freshmen scored only 39.7 percent and seniors just 48.6 percent.

"I wouldn't want to suggest that a 48.6 is something we ought to be excited about," CU Regent Tom Lucero said.

"We all ought to be concerned. I think it's not only an indictment of the university for its teaching of American history, government and economics, but it's also an indictment of K-12. You're talking about freshmen who are coming to us illiterate in these areas."

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.