As higher education sees an increase in enrollment, colleges are gradually shifting their curricula to keep up with the changing economic landscape, often at the expense of the liberal arts. Many institutions have reduced or eliminated vital academic programs, like U.S. history, in favor of professional training programs and STEM fields. The study of subjects like U.S. history and government plays a vital role in fostering not only an informed citizenry, but a civically engaged citizenry, and the academy has traditionally been the center of this civic training. We cannot afford to lose it.
In 2018, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation released a survey examining 41,000 respondents on their knowledge of basic American history facts, based on questions from the U.S Citizenship Test. Only 33% of respondents passed the test. Among some of the startling results is that 13% of the respondents believed the Constitution was written on July 4, 1776. According to the Foundation, the U.S. history curriculum has shifted from lengthy understanding the narrative aspects of history to facts and short-term recall. This is not due in part to the fault of teachers, but the way the curriculum has been structured into a pedological formula based on grades. If these results are any indication, middle and high schools are not doing an adequate job of providing sound instruction in American history. It is essential that colleges pick up the slack. Since U.S. History is no longer being required at colleges and universities, our democracy looks grim.
“U.S. history and government play a vital role in fostering an informed citizenry. We cannot afford to lose it.”
How can colleges restore the study of U.S. history that is so essential for producing an informed citizenry? A survey released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) in 2016 revealed that many history departments are gradually phasing out U.S. History as a requirement for the major. However, some states, including Texas, mandate that students take at least one course in U.S. government or history. Due to this policy, every public institution in Texas has this requirement. To restore the study of U.S. history in our institutions of higher education, more states must follow Texas’s lead in making U.S. history courses a requirement for graduation. As John F. Kennedy famously explained, a comprehensive knowledge of U.S. history is perhaps the most critical training for citizenship:
“There is little that is more important for an American citizen to know than the history and traditions of his country. Without such knowledge, he stands uncertain and defenseless before the world, knowing neither where he has come from nor where he is going. With such knowledge, he is no longer alone but draws a strength far greater than his own from the cumulative experience of the past and a cumulative vision of the future.”
By what metrics are “good” history programs measured? An understanding of U.S. history is not simply memorizing facts from certain periods, but it is the integration of ourselves into the larger story of our nation. Learning about this great story should begin in primary school and become further developed and enriched throughout the academic career. The pinnacle years for studying U.S. history are junior and senior year in high school. But American history education should not end there. In college, students should develop a deeper understanding about our nation’s Founding, principles, and challenges. Good history programs should foster an appreciation of America’s great moments, but also an examination of its faults as a means of understanding the strengths and flaws of our system of government. Within this deeper understanding, the democratic experiment grows. Many colleges have opened the door to the study of world history and country-specific history, as well as many other niche areas, and rightly so, but this should not come at the expense of the study of American history. The creation of our nation’s democratic system was a unique moment in world history, informed by the experiences of the past, and having implications for the future of many other countries.
“Good history programs should foster an appreciation of America’s great moments, but also an examination of its faults.”
Colleges should not be afraid of including American history in their curricula. A comprehensive knowledge of our nation allows students to play an integral role in the development of its government and its future decisions. A robust collegiate civic education fosters the civic engagement that has long seen a decline in our country and allows for students to play a role in writing the story of America’s future.
Thomas Johnson is a curricular improvement intern at ACTA and a rising senior at Lenoir-Rhyne University.