The Forum | General Education

American History Gets the Shaft at Top Universities Like Duke

March 20, 2017 by Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill

The Triangle can boast of being home to three top-ranked research universities—but as area residents can attest, all the prestige can create a campus bubble and unhealthy level of self-regard. A recent kerfuffle about Duke’s failure to require undergraduate U.S. history coursework is a reminder that even a university’s lofty reputation cannot entirely mask issues lurking just beneath the surface.

The controversy began when the campus newspaper, the Duke Chronicle, reported on No U.S. History?, a study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Duke, it turns out, does not require undergraduate students pursuing a degree in history to take a single course in American history.

And it is not alone: Its neighbor in the Research Triangle, the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, also fails to maintain such a U.S. history requirement. In total, only a third of undergraduate history programs at U.S. News & World Report’s top-ranked colleges and universities bother to require a U.S. history class of their majors.

As an alumna of Duke—and particularly at this contentious moment in our nation’s history—I am concerned.

A Duke history professor recently defended this lack of U.S. history by stating they instead focus on a “critical inquiry, research-based, problem-solving approach.” 

Is that Academicspeak for “any subject is as good as another”? Don’t college graduates need to be familiar with the influential figures, ideas, and intellectual underpinnings of American history? 

Just three miles from Duke University’s campus sits Bennett Place, the historic Civil War site where papers were signed for the largest Confederate troop surrender. Yet how many Duke undergraduates know this about this momentous event and its implications for the future of our nation, after dwelling for four years in the “Gothic Wonderland”? And, more importantly, how many students graduate without an understanding of our nation’s history and institutions of freedom?

More broadly, failure to require U.S. history instruction has a negative impact on society. Historical illiteracy is the inevitable consequence of lax college requirements, and that ignorance leads to civic disempowerment. A democratic republic cannot thrive without well-informed citizens and leaders.

Some might reply that high school graduates already know their U.S. history. Frankly, they don’t. And neither do college graduates. Recent surveys found that 77% of college graduates couldn’t identify James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution; 78% of college graduates couldn’t recognize the phrase “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” as part of the Gettysburg Address; and—incredibly—10% of college graduates thought that Judith Sheindlin—better known as “Judge Judy”—serves on the U.S. Supreme Court.

These respondents are the future citizens and citizen-leaders of the United States. How are they to lead, without a thorough understanding of American history? It’s time for alumni and supporters of higher education to call for academic renewal. Many of us have tried writing letters and appealing for change, but we’ve met resistance.

Maybe there are hopeful signs. For instance, Duke’s Program in American Values and Institutions is a multi-disciplinary program that offers students opportunities for in-depth study of America’s political, legal, economic, and cultural institutions, and the values of equality and liberty. Yet this initiative came about only because donors stepped up to work with faculty to create it.

This is instructive: Donors, using the power of the purse, can help persuade administrators and faculty to listen to what the community and the nation want and urgently need. Engagement with a university must extend beyond just sending in an annual contribution to the general fund.

At its best, college is a formative experience that prepares young people to think critically and thrive in the complex world of work, family, and community. Today’s emphasis on increasingly specialized research too often leads institutions to shortchange teaching and neglect undergraduates.  For those well-informed citizens concerned about these issues, it’s time now to help universities like Duke take a different and better path, one on which the future of our nation ultimately depends.


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