Americans Lack Knowledge about Civil Liberties. But is Privately Funded Education the Answer?

Our civil rights are the cornerstone of American democracy. They grant each individual liberties that the government must not infringe upon, and they place limits on state power to ensure that the government does not oppress its people. Though our nation’s history of applying these civil rights has far too often been imperfect—many marginalized groups such as atheists and humanists, people of color, women, and the working class, to name a few, have had their civil liberties denied entirely or severely limited—the concept of fundamental rights for all citizens is still the best means we have of ensuring that individuals’ core liberties are preserved. The humanist community, with its ethics based on the concept of human rights, has been a leader in many social justice movements, calling for expansion of these liberties so that all people can receive just and equitable treatment from the government.

However, these civil rights can only be defended by an informed citizenry that is aware of its rights and staunchly refuses to have them taken away. For this reason, a sobering new report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) indicating that many college and university graduates are ignorant of their rights should be alarming to many humanists. The study reports that 40 percent of college graduates did not know that Congress has the power to declare war and 43 percent could not name freedom of speech as a civil right. It also states that 10 percent thought that Judith Sheindlin of the television show Judge Judy sat on the United States Supreme Court. While Hemant Mehta parses out these findings in more detail on the Friendly Atheist blog, his explanation isn’t exactly comforting, as he also notes that almost 22 percent of college graduates believe that Lawrence Warren Pierce, who served as a federal judge in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York and US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, is a US Supreme Court justice.

While the study’s findings are worrisome, the recommendations of ACTA should also give humanists pause. According to SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, ACTA was founded by Lynne Cheney, the wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who is not known to be particularly friendly to the humanist movement or to the critical thinking and rational inquiry that humanists value. Specifically, the report encourages more private and foundation funding for university courses that teach civics and focus on our country’s founding documents. At face value, this recommendation seems sound, but it fails to grapple with the underlying problems confronting colleges and universities that are causing them to churn out such uninformed students in the first place.

As Dr. Jeffrey Williams, a professor of critical university studies at Carnegie Mellon University, writes in Dissent magazine, “Philanthropy is not the innocent cure—all that it’s represented to be…It turns the orientation of the university toward fundraising. It creates a huge new administrative bureaucracy in Advancement and Development offices, detached from the educational mission of the university.” (In the interest of full disclosure, I worked as a research assistant for Dr. Williams while studying at Carnegie Mellon University, which speaks to my familiarity with this subject as well as my biases in its favor.) Williams and other proponents of critical university studies would likely argue that this turn toward private funding in colleges and universities is what is creating such ignorance of civil rights in students and that more private funding will only exacerbate the problem. When the goal of colleges and universities becomes a never-ending chase for private dollars, more school resources are dedicated to securing funding, leaving fewer resources for ensuring quality educational courses. Ironically, this increased bureaucracy within higher education also drives up tuition prices, making college less affordable for many Americans. All too often, private funding also dictates the content of courses, which can be geared toward serving a particular political agenda rather than providing a sound education.

For instance, Williams cites a BB&T Charitable Foundation grant to the University of North Carolina-Charlotte that required Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to be assigned reading for a course that it funded, but the examples of ways in which private funding limits educational institutions goes far beyond this particular instance. Humanists are all too familiar with the religious right’s attempts to privatize public education to push their religious agendas at the expense of our students’ right to a secular education, and the American Humanist Association has vigorously opposed these efforts. Private funding can also compromise the scientific research done in universities. For instance, Discover magazine reports that drug studies done by universities can be compromised by their private funders: “the industry sponsor will prevent the academic investigator from performing any independent analysis of the complete raw data related to his or her research [on particular drug trials].”

The primary goal of colleges and universities should be to educate students and instill in them critical thinking skills. If universities are failing to inform students of their basic civil rights and even a cursory understanding of civics, then we as a nation are less capable of defending these liberties and exercising our democracy. While ACTA diagnosed this problem, its suggested cure of increased private funding for universities would likely only aggravate the issue. Americans have always had to be vigilant to defend their civil rights, but when a South Carolina lawmaker calls for a state registry of journalists, an act that would severely infringe upon the freedom of the press and freedom of speech, Americans must first be aware that these rights are being threatened before they can hope to protect them. Our democracy only works if Americans are informed, and unfortunately, our academic institutions appear to be failing our next generation of citizens.

The humanist movement has long stood for knowledge, education and critical thinking, as well as human rights and civil liberties. To protect these values, we should support independent funding of higher education so that our college and universities are free to provide students with the information and skills they need not only to build careers and foster innovation but also to defend their basic rights.