The Forum | General Education

Jonathan Pidluzny: College Graduates Must Understand U.S. History

July 3, 2019 by Erik Gross

Dr. Jonathan Pidluzny is the Director of Academic Affairs at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Prior to joining ACTA, Dr. Pidluzny taught political science at Morehead State University, specializing in the American Founding. 

Why is a solid grounding in U.S. history or government a necessary element of a strong liberal education—and why is it desperately needed today?

There is a short answer to this question. Colleges once believed it important to graduate competent and responsible citizens. This was one of the primary rationales for public, postsecondary education in the first place. Graduating students who understand the basic features of the country’s political system and history should still be an elemental priority for colleges and universities—graven by governing boards into institutional mission statements.

There are at least three reasons this remains important today. First, we live in a democratic system, in which legitimate government springs from consent. This is the best mechanism ever devised to protect individual rights and, therewith, a generous sphere wherein individuals are free to pursue happiness how they themselves define it. The educative element is paramount: If we know our rights and understand the consent principle, we will be prickly about government actions—from any branch, inspired by whatever ideology—that potentially imperil citizens’ liberties. And liberty is the first precondition of pursuing happiness.

Second, good government—which is more complicated than limited government—can be made to issue from representative government where informed deliberation refines or ennobles the majority’s instincts and inclinations. Citizens have to be willing and disposed to choose well when they are faced with difficult tradeoffs that pit their narrow private interests (say, a tax cut) against the long-term common good of the country. Third, and very much related, cultivating a sense of common purpose among the citizenry is important. If college graduates share an understanding of, and appreciation for, their country’s ideals and history—which is not to suggest that they should be uncritical—it will be easier to have a national conversation about how we might best address the problems we face as a nation.  

“Colleges once believed it important to graduate competent and responsible citizens.” 

I can put this in a slightly more complicated way, too. There is a strong relationship between political science and history. At the risk of oversimplifying, political science is the application of political theory to history. There is also an underappreciated relationship between political science and republican government. In a liberal or constitutional democracy (the only kind of regime in which political science and objective history flourish), students of politics should be asking several questions: What is the aspirational purpose of our political system? Is that purpose right? Have we organized our political system in such a way as to realize those ends or purposes as best we can? That is, the study of the American democracy—whether one gets at it by way of history or politics—should equip citizens, and especially those who will take on leadership roles, seriously to reflect on our political system with the aim of (at a minimum) perpetuating our political institutions and, at best, of building a more perfect union for our posterity. This means understanding the purposes or guiding principles of the American democracy, the respects in which we have lived up to them (and failed to), and the ways—feasible based on history’s lessons—that we might work together to improve the system’s outcomes (or even the system itself).   

Last year’s What Will They Learn report found that only 17% of colleges require a foundational course in U.S. government or history. How do you explain this extraordinary failure by American higher education writ large?

I think several pressures are conspiring to undermine civics education on college campuses. The first has to do with the politics of the curriculum process on most campuses. Increasingly, faculty are eyeing general education programs as a kind of “turf,” ownership of which enables programs to recruit into their majors. Keep in mind that general education programs generally make up about one third (and as much as half) of an undergraduate degree. When institutions revise their core curricula—and hardly anything is more controversial among the faculty—the easiest way to build consensus is to share the spoils. This is why distribution categories comprised of several, or several dozen, courses are so popular; it’s the path of least resistance. Every discipline can be satisfied by having a course or two included. The problem: This yields general education programs without much of a coherent purpose. I think students are generally so dissatisfied with their general education experience—some don’t understand why they even have to take the courses!—precisely because they sense that their program lacks focus and purpose.

In a perfect world, faculty and academic leaders would resist—or better, reverse—this trend. But that requires a critical mass who are committed to building (or defending) a rigorous and coherent core. For the reasons above, as well as broader cultural trends and fiscal pressures, this is harder work than ever today. Members of governing boards can play an important role here by ensuring that their schools remain moored—at the level of institutional mission—to the three traditional purposes of a college education: Students should graduate with the disciplinary specialty that the market demands, but they should also be expert learners, effective communicators, and critical thinkers; universities must foster responsible citizenship and encourage students to become engaged members of their overlapping communities; and students should be exposed to the kinds of courses that will give them a taste for lifelong learning and the intellectual pursuits that will enrich their lives. A college major focuses on the first half of that first objective. It is up to a university’s general education program to accomplish the rest.

What are some of the concepts or “big ideas” from American history that you wish young people had a better understanding of or appreciation for?

I wish students had a better appreciation of the American Founding. It really is a unique, and uniquely important, moment in the history of the country. But it is also an event of world-historical significance. It is probably the single best example of a group of people—many of them extraordinarily well-versed in history, philosophy, classics, literature, etc.—getting together to devise a political system designed to establish a free and representative political system.

People do not realize that the Framers thought our political system might well fail. Alexander Hamilton meant it when he called it an “experiment” in “Federalist No. 1.” Read George Washington’s letters to John Jay in the spring of 1787. They reflect extraordinary pessimism about the country’s chances and even about the possibility of republican government working anywhere in the modern world.

“I wish students had a better appreciation of the American Founding. It really is a unique moment in the history of the country. But it is also an event of world-historical significance.” 

The system the Framers devised that same summer in Philadelphia did work, more or less as expected after some tinkering, with the vitally important caveat that compromises were written into the Constitution to protect the “execrable” (Thomas Jefferson’s word) institution of slavery. Note, though, that the Framers’ work contained a blueprint for the system’s improvement if one reads the principles of the Declaration as aspirational, designed to guide later efforts to build a more perfect Union (as Abraham Lincoln most assuredly did). And, as we know, the success of the American experiment set off a proliferation of liberal democracies that ultimately builds the world we know today—one that is freer, wealthier, more peaceful, and in which learning has advanced further than at any other point in human history.

Learning about the American Founding should be exhilarating. It is hard to imagine there is a conversation in history that has contributed more to human happiness and well-being—in the United States and the world—than the one that occurred in Philadelphia in the hot summer of 1787.

What can history teach us about the future?

Everything. Or close to it. Was it Mark Twain who said that while history may not repeat, it certainly rhymes? The more history you know, and the more practiced you are at analyzing it—looking for patterns, comparing and contrasting, identifying outliers, etc.—the easier it becomes to identify what matters in your own time. We also get better at teasing out the essential variables that affected the outcome, what caused this or that. Practice at this develops the intellect and sharpens the mind; I think that is what we mean by the term “critical thinking.” I would put it this way: The study of history can help us build a better future because you want practiced thinkers making the decisions that affect the world—not just in foreign affairs, but also in government and the business world. If anything, this is increasingly important as the pace of technological and societal change accelerates.

“The more history you know, and the more practiced you are at analyzing it … the easier it becomes to identify what matters in your time.”

A developed historical understanding also helps us to evaluate our own political system. It is relatively easy to judge a political system in light of the ideals we hold. Is the United States equitable enough? Are the states free enough? Young people are especially good at this (and especially prone to revolutionary enthusiasms). It is quite another, and more difficult, thing to assess a political system in light of history’s grand catalogue of experiments. As students learn more about what has been tried, the initiatives that have failed and succeeded (and the reasons for those successes and failures), they begin to make more nuanced judgments.

To give a concrete example, Marxist/Leninist ideas appeal to good-natured young people for obvious reasons: Who wouldn’t want a society in which all are provided the resources necessary to realize their creative potential? As you begin to learn about real world experiments with communism, however, you quickly begin to appreciate why those systems failed and why they will likely continue to do so. You learn about the incentives that govern human action, about human nature—what politics can affect and what it cannot—and with some practice, you find you can begin to predict the success or failure of new experiments, big or small. In my experience, those with deeper historical understanding are generally kinder in their assessment of our political system, of Western Civilization, and of capitalism. It is not that we cannot imagine more just arrangements. We can. But we can also imagine chimeras. Historical understanding helps us to identify the chimerical in the plans, ideas, and policy proposals that will shape our future.

Higher education is meant to prepare students for career and citizenry. Is the failure to teach U.S. history an indication that higher education has become too focused on the former?

I understand why this perception is fairly widely shared. But I think it’s mistaken for two reasons. First, a traditional 120-hour bachelor’s degree (generally) leaves a good deal of room for study in areas that are not directly related to a student’s major, or narrowly tailored to some professional competency. There are some exceptions—nursing and engineering programs come immediately to mind—but most students can complete their program requirements alongside a robust core curriculum and a minor, while leaving space for several electives.

Second, a well-designed general education program should not be viewed as having learning objectives that are entirely distinct from the career-preparation courses. Employers want competent learners. Survey after survey confirms that employers are disappointed with today’s graduates, not because they lack a body of disciplinary, professional, or paraprofessional understanding, but because they can’t read for comprehension, can’t write, can’t critically engage with complicated material, aren’t innovative thinkers, lack intercultural fluency, etc. These are hard skills to teach. But the bulk of the work has generally occurred in the traditional arts and science courses that make up a traditional core. While students are learning about the American democracy or reading Coriolanus, they are becoming better citizens and better acquainted with the canon. But they are also developing the concrete abilities that will enable them to succeed in challenging (and rewarding) careers.


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