The Fourth of July appears to be at the backs of the minds of college students nationwide.

A recent survey of 14,000 randomly selected seniors and freshmen on 50 campuses across the country were given a 60-question examination, similar to those administered in citizenship tests. Students were questioned on their knowledge of the Declaration of Independence, a symbol of the national holiday and the founding of the United States.

"The Declaration of Independence is considered to be the founding document of the United States of America and it should be the focal point of all teachings about the nation's history and institutions," said Richard Brake, director of university stewardship for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which released the data.

Seniors scored an average of 61.75 percent, or flunking on a traditional grading scale, while their younger counterparts scored a hair better — 62.12 percent but still failing.

Scores for the most part were worse than the results of similar tests given last year, which signifies a negative learning trend, according to ISI.

Students who enroll in American history courses at the University of Utah have little or no excuse to be unaware of the document. U. Professor Janet Ellingson said most of them understand that the U.S. government was founded on the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence, but few know what it declares.

Ellingson provides the opportunity for each of her students to read the document aloud together in class and discuss its language.

"I think it is very important that they know what the document states," she said. "As far as their interpretation of it and determining what it means to them, that's up to each of them." The historical significance of the Declaration of Independence is discussed, as well as its meaning to people at the time it was signed — July 4, 1776.

"It's a very concise expression of what is a primary value, the value of rights," Ellingson said. "The government is there to protect those rights and to be sure we have the ability to exercise those rights."

Ellingson said that many students don't think of government as what it was set forth to accomplish, but more along the lines of spending money, starting wars and other confusion. She presents the opportunity to her students, through reading and discussing the Declaration of Independence, to learn how government was set up to act.

According to ISI, the majority of students confused statements from the founding document with words found in the Preamble to the Constitution. Some even believed the phrase, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," to be part of Marx and Engels' "The Communist Manifesto."

More than 15 percent of the students surveyed believed the Declaration of Independence relies most obviously on the political thought of Plato rather than John Locke, the English philosopher who helped develop liberal political theory, or liberalism. Overall, students of American citizenship scored higher than their foreign national colleagues, who averaged about 46 percent.

The full results of ISI's American civic literacy study and the complete survey of questions, as well as the exam itself, can be found online at americancivicliteracy.org.


E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com