Purdue close to requiring civics for new students

The university's Board of Trustees will vote in June to approve mandating future students become prepared to 'engage in democratic processes'.
By: | April 20, 2021
Photo courtesy of Purdue University

Quick, name the three branches of the United States government.

If you guessed executive, legislative and judicial, you are on par with 51% of Americans polled in 2020 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, nearly the half of the others in the survey done annually, could not, and 23% couldn’t name any of the three. Those statistics underscore the cringeworthy civics trough that exists in the U.S.

At Purdue University, the debate about whether to mandate that students have a working knowledge of their obligations and rights has raged for more than two years. Now, it is much closer to becoming a reality.

On Monday, Purdue’s Board of Trustees put forth a proposal to make civics literacy a requirement for all undergraduates who enter the university this fall. Their official vote will come on June 11.

It seems the lack of basic knowledge – more than half of those surveyed couldn’t name a First Amendment right beyond Freedom of Speech – finally has reaching a boiling point in West Lafayette, Indiana.

“There is plenty of evidence that many in our society are sadly lacking in civics knowledge and unprepared to actively and effectively engage in our democratic processes,” said JoAnn Brouillette, chair of the trustees Academic and Student Affairs Committee. “Many of our faculty have agreed that this is a vital need, and we are grateful for their diligent efforts over the past months to create this program that will serve our students as they enter an ever-changing world.”

A new course of action

Coming fresh off an election cycle where misinformation and divisiveness were rampant, Purdue believes empowering students with civics principles is the best tool to combat both.

“Findings like these are quite troubling given that our system of representation rests on the assumption of an informed public,” Jay McCann, professor of political science. “Just as troubling is the startling rise in political ‘misinformation’ these days, in addition to gaps in civics knowledge. This makes it even more pressing for Purdue undergraduates to have a solid grounding in the basics of American politics and civic life.”

Current students can take the course but it not mandatory. They would, however, receive a notation upon completion on their transcript that they successfully earned “Civics Literacy Proficiency” and be better informed.

For those arriving to campus in the fall and beyond, they won’t have a choice if the requirement is approved. They would have to pass an exam and complete one of three options for credit:

  • Attend six approved civics-related events
  • Complete 12 podcasts created by the Purdue Center for C-SPAN Scholarship and Engagement that use C-SPAN material
  • Complete one of several approved courses

Purdue’s faculty not only hopes to impart knowledge to students through the initiative but also hopes to empower them to become more active in politics.

“These curricular and experiential requirements will help our students grow and reach their potential as contributing citizens of our world,” said Phillip VanFossen, professor of social studies and director of the Ackerman Center for Democratic Citizenship in the College of Education. “Additionally, some studies have found employers value candidates who have this knowledge — who are ‘civics certified,’ if you will.”