State higher education officials on millennials' grasp of civics

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Alan Levine speaks during a news conference in 2004. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
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PENSACOLA — State higher education officials on Wednesday afternoon debated whether public university students should be required to learn about U.S. history, government and politics, as some members lamented what they saw as a disheartening lack of civic understanding among young adults.

The day after Florida’s presidential primary, Alan Levine, a member of the State University System board of governors, recited a series of statistics meant to demonstrate how little 18- to 34-year-old Americans know about their country’s history and how its government functions.

For example, Levine cited studies that found millennials like socialism and others that show they don’t know what it means. He pointed to a poll that found the majority of young people couldn’t name the senators representing their home states and another that found some believe Judge Judy is on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If it were my preference, I would say, yes, it should be a requirement for graduation. Proficiency in understanding American civics should be a requirement,” Levine said after a meeting of the board’s academic and student affairs committee at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. “That’s not what I’ve asked for, though. What I’ve asked for is for the provosts to go back and talk about this issue and come back to us with some ideas about how to address it.

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“It may not just be a higher ed issue. It might be a K-12 issue,” he said. “But the right thing to do is to engage our academic leaders to talk about it and then come back and tell us what they think.”

Levine, a 2013 appointee of Gov. Rick Scott who runs a Tennessee-based hospital chain, served in former Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration as health care administration secretary and, before that, as deputy chief of staff.

Some of Levine’s colleagues agreed with his comments and others said the board should be careful to avoid instituting curriculum mandates.

“We, as a board, are concerned about what the young students today … know about our history, our Constitution and who we are as Americans,” said Patricia Frost, a member who was appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010. “Here, we are going to vote for president of the United States of America soon, and I just want to know of those voting: Do they understand the Constitution and their obligations when they vote?”

Norman Tripp, who Crist appointed to the board in 2008 and who Scott reappointed in 2013, said: “It’s proper for this system to be concerned, and we’ll have further discussion about it.”

The board’s chair, Thomas Kuntz, warned against hastily imposing academic requirements on the state's dozen universities.

“While I understand and agree with so much of what was said … I just want us to be careful that we are respectful of the roles that we all have and we don’t get ahead of ourselves,” said Kuntz, who Scott appointed in 2012.

Levine said the timing of his presentation to the board was coincidental, not political.

During the presentation and afterward, he repeatedly expressed concerns that young people support socialism, according to the studies. ("The good news," he said, is that young people who did understand the differences between socialism and capitalism were less likely to support the former, according to the polls.)

But, Levine said, his speech was unrelated to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, during which the Vermont senator has gained support from young people while describing his political ideology as Democratic socialism. Sanders lost big to Hillary Clinton in the state primary on Tuesday.

“This absolutely has nothing to do with that,” Levine said.