ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

No U.S. History? Executive Summary

June 2016

Given what we know about the historical illiteracy of young Americans, it would seem irresponsible not to make the study of our history and government mandatory for all students. Not to require students majoring in history to take, at a minimum, a course with reasonable chronological and thematic breadth on the history of the United States would be a truly breathtaking abandonment of intellectual standards and professional judgment.

To determine the status of United States history in today’s history majors, ACTA researched the requirements for the major at history departments of leading colleges and universities, a full listing of which can be found in the appendix. We find in our study of the top 25 liberal arts colleges, the top 25 national universities, and the top 25 public institutions that only 23 programs out of 76 require a course on our nation’s history.* That’s less than one-third.

  • Top 25 Liberal Arts Colleges: 7 require U.S. history
  • Top 25 National Universities: 4 require U.S. History
  • Top 25 Public Institutions: 14 require U.S. history

Of the 23 programs that do list a requirement for United States history, 11 allow courses so narrow in scope—such as “History of Sexualities” or “History of the FBI”—that it takes a leap of the imagination to see these as an adequate fulfillment of an undergraduate history requirement.

Why top undergraduate departments behave this way is unclear. Perhaps it is from fear of seeming to endorse “American exceptionalism.” Or perhaps it comes from a naïve belief that American students already have a firm grasp of their nation’s history. Either way, the damage is real. Virtually all institutions offer comprehensive courses on America’s past, but the overwhelming majority do not take the vitally important next step of ensuring that all graduating majors have taken one of these courses. This only-if-you-want-to approach will undoubtedly lead scores of history majors to graduate without ever taking a course on United States history beyond the high-school level.

Yale University exemplifies this desire to maximize student choice at the cost of essential requirements. It recently implemented a “specialist track” that allows history majors beginning with the class of 2017 to forgo a requirement in U.S. history whereas previous students were required to take at least two courses in the history of the United States or Canada. According to the department’s website, this new option was “created in response to students’ desire to focus in particular areas of interest earlier in the History major.”4 Likewise, Rice University required students who matriculated before fall 2014 to take one course in United States history, but their new set of requirements makes it merely optional.

It is not the case that history departments refuse to set any requirements for the major. Although a large majority of schools fail to require even a single course in U.S. history, as noted above, many do have geographical-distribution requirements excluding the United States. Of the schools without a U.S. history requirement, five explicitly require taking a course in non-U.S. history. Cornell University, for example, has only three requirements for their history majors: Two of the required nine courses must be seminars on various topics, three courses must focus on history before 1800, and four courses must be categorized as “outside of U.S. History.”5 Similarly, Bowdoin College, Swarthmore College, and Northwestern University all require courses focused outside the history of Europe and the United States without requiring courses within these regions.

Another eight schools list requirements in courses covering other specified regions outside the United States. Among these, for instance, Bates College requires two courses on either East Asia or Latin America but not on the United States or any other region. And at the University of North Carolina, students similarly must take at least one course either in African, Asian, and Middle Eastern history or in Latin American history. Finally, 34 schools in total have general geographical-distribution requirements in which students may freely opt out of taking any courses in U.S. history altogether.

Some strange topics can take the place of United States history. Of the schools that do not require a single course in U.S. history, majors have free-range to choose from niche courses such as “Soccer and History in Latin America: Making the Beautiful Game” (Williams College), “Modern Addiction: Cigarette Smoking in the 20th Century” (Swarthmore College), “Lawn Boy Meets Valley Girl” (Bowdoin College), and “Witchcraft and Possession” (University of Pennsylvania).

Of the schools that do require their history majors to take at least one course focused on the history of the United States, some of the courses that fulfill that requirement do not have sufficient breadth to stand as adequate fulfillment of a U.S. history requirement. It is frustrating that these schools found it important to create the requirement but remained lax in defining the actual courses that could fulfill it. At these schools, we find that majors can fulfill their U.S. history requirement with such courses as, “Mad Men and Mad Women” (Middlebury College), “Uncovering Early UVA” (University of Virginia), “Hip-Hop, Politics, and Youth Culture in America” (University of Connecticut), and “Jews in American Entertainment” (University of Texas).

Although microhistories can illuminate a topic and have an important place in historical understanding, it is intellectually and educationally unsound for narrowly focused courses to displace substantive experience in fundamental areas of history. There is a price to pay for letting trendy, highly specialized courses fulfill requirements. As KC Johnson, senior professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, has pointed out, core areas of unquestionable importance for historical perspective are not required and sometimes not even represented among course offerings. Professor Johnson causes us to ask: What happened to fields such as military, constitutional, and diplomatic history?

Likewise, world history is of course an essential part of an undergraduate history-major program. Before the United States became a nation, it was part of an Atlantic world, and no region in modern times can appropriately be studied in isolation. That gives, however, all the more reason to include a sound understanding of America as a requirement for the major and, in turn, an understanding of its significance for global history.

Let’s consider for a brief moment what is missing when the study of the United States disappears from the study of history. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” That is from the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Fast-forward to the twentieth century: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” So Ho Chi Minh quoted in 1945 in the draft of the Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. A student without knowledge of the American Founding—and, as ACTA’s surveys noted above demonstrate, there are plenty of them—would simply be adrift. And he or she would be unable to understand why it is significant that our Declaration was so influential, even removed in time and space from its origin, among our allies and among nations with which we have struggled.

Harvard’s mission statement declares, “The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” Carleton College aspires to develop “qualities of mind and character that prepare its graduates to become citizens and leaders, capable of finding inventive solutions to local, national, and global challenges.” Georgetown University wants its graduates “to be responsible and active participants in civic life.” University of Michigan aims at “developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.”7 These storied institutions express inspiring and wholly appropriate goals. But in the absence of requirements even for history majors for the study of our own nation’s past and the development of our form of government, these noble aspirations ring hollow.

In short, requirements within a major showcase what knowledge a school deems vital to the comprehensive understanding of a particular field of study. Without requiring a course focused on the history of the United States and the development of its institutions, these schools either assume students will take such a course of their own volition or don’t believe such a course is necessary for their history majors. Either way, America’s past is being passed over.

*The number of schools reflects the rankings in U.S. News & World Report, as well as two schools—UCLA and UC–Berkeley—that appear in lists for both the national universities and public institutions.