The 2018 Cardus Education Survey (CES) marks nearly a decade’s worth of research into the effects of various school sectors on the academic, social, religious, and civic development of graduates in the United States. The Survey is now considered one of the most significant measures of nongovernment school outcomes. CES reports capture the views from a representative sample of 1,500 randomly selected American high school graduates ages twenty-four to thirty-nine who were asked to complete a thirty-five to forty-five-minute survey. The assessment comes at an important time—far enough away for these graduates to have had experiences in other educational institutions, in family and relationships, and in the workplace, and yet close enough to allow for some maturity, reflection, and recollection. The CES instrument includes a large number of controls for many factors in graduate development, such as parental education, religion, and income, in order to isolate a school sector’s particular impact (“the schooling effect”).1
Five smaller reports summarize the results of the 2018 survey. They focus on particular outcomes and themes of interest, including the following: (1) education and career pathways; (2) faith and spirituality; (3) civic, political, and community involvement and engagement; (4) social ties and relationships; and (5) perceptions of high school.
One of the important contributions of the 2018 CES is to report on how graduates from the various school sectors are participating in public life. The following report summarizes these findings into five categories: trust, political views and orientations, political engagement, civic views, and civic engagement and volunteerism. These findings provide significant nuance to our understanding of how graduates contribute to public life, citizenship, and the common good by offering a deeper understanding of how graduates from the various school sectors consider and balance obligations to their community and the nation. These measures also get at something beyond politics; they say something about how graduates live within a shared civil society and how they are involved in the life of their community, how they work toward the common good, and their capacity to love their neighbours.
Citizenship, volunteerism, and civic and political engagement is about building the social infrastructure of society; the middle layers between the state and the individual. These activities occur in public spaces where families worship and gather and children go to school, as well as the community centres and local youth shelters. These are the spaces where “civicness” is strengthened and thick community is built, where people come together regardless of their possible divisions and work toward something in common. The 2018 CES seeks to understand how the various school sectors influence these important civic virtues and orientations, and includes a number of questions on trust, political and civic orientation, civic engagement, and volunteerism.
The precipitous decline in trust is a recent and troubling trend in the United States. Richard Edelman, president and CEO of the Edelman firm, which conducts the international “Edelman Trust Barometer,” notes that the steep decline in trust was “happening at a time of prosperity, with the stock market and employment rates in the U.S. at record highs.”2 This is unusual. Increased distrust usually follows calamities of foreign policy or economic recession. Nevertheless, today only one-third of Americans trust their government to do what is right, which is a 14 percent decline from last year. Only 42 percent trust the media, and the general trust in business and in NGOs has decreased by nearly 10 percentage points each.3 New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “The pervasive atmosphere of distrust undermines actual intimacy, which involves progressive self-disclosure, vulnerability, emotional risk and spontaneous and unpredictable face-to-face conversations.”4 The lack of trust is part of the path to social isolation, and the path of social isolation leads to ill health for individuals and societies.
The CES gauges social trust by asking a series of questions designed to understand graduates’ orientations to and perceptions of public institutions and persons, including the federal government, mass media, public school personnel, and scientists. Non-religious private school graduates have a higher degree of institutional trust in absolute terms than do public school graduates, but the explanation for this difference is rooted in family rather than in school processes. These graduates are more likely to trust the federal government, scientists, and the mass media than all other graduates. On the other end of the spectrum, religious homeschool graduates tend to trust the federal government the least.
The Catholic school effect on institutional trust is intriguing. Catholic school graduates do not differ from public school graduates in their level of trust in the federal government and their trust in the mass media is lower but not significantly lower than public school graduates. On the other hand, their trust in scientists is significantly higher than that of public school graduates.
The findings reveal that Protestant school graduates’ level of trust in the federal government is slightly lower than that of public school graduates, but this effect is not nearly significant, and is in fact higher than we have seen in past cohorts. At the same time, trust in the mass media remains low for Protestant school graduates: the average Protestant school graduate’s level of trust in mass media, measured on a six-point scale, is about .35 points lower than that of the average public school graduate. Protestant school graduates are substantially less likely to trust public school teachers or administrators, and also express a lower level of trust in scientists, though these views seem largely shaped by whether the scientist is secular. Interestingly, however, when asked if science and religion are mostly compatible, Protestant school graduates strongly agree, though there is a good deal of variation within the group.
Levels of institutional trust are lowest among religious homeschoolers. Even after family-background controls are added, religious homeschoolers are less trusting of the federal government, the mass media, public schools, and scientists. However, the religious homeschool sector is also most likely to agree with the view that science and religion are mostly compatible. The religious homeschool sector is also more supportive of the view that it is acceptable to say things in public that are offensive to religious groups. Their average level of support for this view is nearly a half point higher on this seven-point scale. In a similar vein, when asked if society should be more tolerant of non-Christian religions, the religious homeschool graduates are far less likely than their peers from public school to believe this. Protestant school graduates are also less likely to agree with this view than public school graduates.
Political Views and Orientations
When we consider views on the place of religion in public life, the evidence suggests that nearly all private-school-sector graduates have higher levels of support for religion in the public square. Even the non-religious private school graduates oppose the view that religion should be kept out of debates over social and political issues. Catholic school graduates have about the same levels of support for religion in public life as public school graduates. Protestant and religious homeschool graduates are the most supportive of an active role for religion in public life.
In terms of political ideology, protestant school graduates are much more likely than public school graduates to describe their political ideology as conservative and to report that they are closer to the Republican Party than the Democratic one. On a seven-point scale, they are about 1.25 points closer to the Republicans. They are also significantly less likely to say that the federal government should do more to solve social problems. Religious homeschool graduates follow suit for the most part; however, they are not as strongly in support of the Republican Party as the Protestant school graduates. Catholic school graduates trend toward political conservatism in ideology, but this is only marginally significant. They see themselves as closer to the Republican Party, though the Catholicschool-sector effect is less than half that of the Protestant-school-sector effect on this measure.
Protestant school graduates are no more or less likely than are public school graduates to have a sense of obligation to care for the environment. Non-religious private school graduates are slightly lower on a sense of obligation to care for the environment, and the Catholic school effect is similar to that of the public school, though it is only marginally significant.
Civic orientation also includes a sense of identity or belonging to the nation, which may conflict with other global or religious identities. In the CES data, we find strong school-sector differences regarding the sense of being a citizen of the world rather than a citizen of a particular country. Nonreligious private school graduates are much more likely than public school graduates to consider themselves as citizens of the world. Catholic school graduates are in line with public school graduates in their views on global citizenship. Protestant school graduates and religious homeschoolers tend to see themselves less as global citizens, though their high levels of involvement in mission and service work throughout the globe provides important nuance to this picture. Catholic school graduates are more willing than public school graduates to participate in international or foreign policy issues, whereas Protestant school graduates are nearly identical on this measure. Non-religious private school graduates are more likely to volunteer for an international cause, though this large effect—nearly 1.8 times the public-school-graduate odds—is only marginally significant. Religious homeschool graduates are strongly and significantly less likely to volunteer for international issues or causes— indeed, 70 percent less likely than are public school graduates.
Civic researchers have pointed to the importance of expressed interest in politics as a measure of political engagement and a healthy democracy. On this outcome, non-religious private school graduates and Catholic school graduates are no different from public school graduates. Protestant school and religious homeschool graduates express lower levels of interest in politics and public affairs. The average on this four-point scale of political interest is about .3 points lower, which corresponds to a third.