ACTA in the News | Historical Literacy

Who’s afraid of American history?

THE CAROLINA JOURNAL   |  July 11, 2023 by Jameson C. Broggi and Michael B. Poliakoff

The terror that administrators and quite a few faculty at University of North Carolina’s flagship campus at Chapel Hill display over a wholesome curricular reform reveals staggering irrationality. The documents of the American Founding hardly deserve such apoplexy.   

If it becomes law, House Bill 96, the Reclaiming College Education on America’s Constitutional Heritage (REACH) Act, would require that all students who seek to graduate from a North Carolina public university or community college — that is approximately 360,000 students per year — complete a course that includes study of America’s foundational documents.  

This benign and reasonable answer to the growing problem of civic illiteracy, modeled closely on the law that South Carolina passed in 2021, has provoked a virulent storm of opposition, which really is Exhibit A for why this proposed law is so urgently needed as a higher education course correction. 

Fortunately, despite a faculty petition with 700 signatures opposing the proposed legislation, and a flurry of behind-the-scenes efforts by university legislative liaisons to spike the bill, the legislature so far has lined up behind the measure. The House passed it 69-47. It will next be taken up by the Senate. 

Chapel Hill professors hyperventilate on their petition that the REACH Act, “violates core principles of academic freedom,” substituting “ideological force-feeding for the intellectual expertise of faculty.” But the gravamen of the legislation is simply that, at a minimum, undergraduates take a course in which they study: the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, at least five essays from the Federalist Papers, to be chosen by the instructor, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, and the Gettysburg Address. An examination on these documents will count for 20% of the final grade.  

That’s what the school’s petition-signers are hyperventilating over? Such animus toward founding American ideals is all the more shocking when one considers that UNC, which was established in 1789, was the first public institution in America to grant degrees. How did a school with that pedigree devolve to the point where hundreds of current faculty feel that our founding documents need a trigger warning? 

It is, fortunately, totally within the prerogatives of a state legislature to establish the curricular topics that taxpayer funds support at a public university.

State Rep. Jon Hardister, the chairman of the North Carolina House Education-Universities Committee, told the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), “Some people claim that the legislature is overstepping its boundaries by requiring a particular subject to be taught at the college level. This argument is simply not true. The North Carolina General Assembly created the UNC System and provides billions of dollars in funding to operate it. It is therefore reasonable and proper for the legislature to take this action, especially when we are only talking about three credit hours out of 120 for undergraduate students.”  

South Carolina provided the model for North Carolina when it passed its own REACH Act in 2021. Florida adopted similar civic education requirements in 2019, as did the Arizona Board of Regents in 2021. In all, 11 states set strong higher education requirements for American civics. The requirements of H.B. 96 hardly invade the classrooms of N.C. professors, but it does fulfill the duty of legislators to help ensure an informed electorate. 

In uncovered emails, one highly paid Chapel Hill legislative liaison smugly dismissed this important legislation as a “wrap yourself in the flag” type of bill and as “red meat theater.” But not a single UNC System school requires a foundational course in American history or government. Chapel Hill, ironically, does require a course in “global understanding,” but nothing to ensure understanding of the operating principles of our nation. 

The president of the state chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a tenured professor of history at Chapel Hill, claims the bill is “a blatant show of disrespect for the expertise of faculty at UNC schools.”

Whatever that expertise may be, it hasn’t done much for civic literacy in the state, considering 61% of North Carolinians would fail the U.S. Citizenship Test.

State Rep. Hardister reacted by telling ACTA, “H.B. 96 represents good policy that will benefit students and prepare them to be productive members of society. I hope these folks will reconsider their stance and embrace this legislation as an effort to enrich the learning experience for students in our university system.” 

Meanwhile, however, students at Chapel Hill can fulfill their requirement for “Engagement with the Human Past” with such courses as “Game of Thrones and the Worlds of the European Middle Ages,” “Italian Food and Culture,” or “Art and Sports in the Americas.” 

North Carolina’s elected representatives need to give H.B. 96 speedy passage into law. 

This post appeared in The Carolina Journal on July 10, 2023.


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