Trustees | General Education

A history degree without studying U.S. history?

It’s possible at top colleges like Harvard, Yale and Stanford
WASHINGTON POST   |  July 7, 2016 by Nick Anderson

 Harvard University does not require history majors to take a course in U.S. history. Nor do Georgetown University, the University of Maryland and many other highly regarded schools.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni says that’s a problem. The council, based in Washington, recently surveyed the requirements for history majors at top colleges and universities and concluded that too many give short shrift to the United States.

“A democratic republic cannot thrive without well-informed citizens and leaders,” said the council’s president, Michael Poliakoff. “Elite colleges and universities in particular let the nation down when the examples they set devalue the study of United States history.”

The council’s survey of programs at 76 highly ranked colleges and universities found that 53 do not require history students to take a course focused on the nation’s history. Among the 23 that do have such a requirement were the University of California at Berkeley, the College of William and Mary, Columbia University and — not surprisingly — the U.S. Naval Academy and U.S. Military Academy.

But faculty interviewed at some of the 53 no-requirement schools said the situation is not as dire as it looks. Most history students take courses on the United States regardless of the fine print, they said.

“From a purely pragmatic point of view, our curriculum committee has not felt the need for such a requirement because virtually all [history] students take at least one U.S. history course without our needing to require it,” said Daniel Lord Smail, chair of the history department at Harvard.

Among Harvard’s requirements for the major is a half-course in U.S. or European history, as well as half-courses in non-western history, pre-modern history and various other seminars and electives. Smail said faculty reviewed the issue “some years ago,” looking at transcripts of history majors, and found no need to make U.S. history a requirement. “I don’t remember finding a single transcript that did not include a U.S. history course,” he said.

Georgetown’s history chair, Bryan McCann, made a similar point. “We haven’t seen the need for a firm requirement,” he said. “Almost all history majors are taking courses that significantly cover the U.S. in any case.”

McCann said most students come to Georgetown with a strong grounding in U.S. history from high school, through Advanced Placement or similar courses. In addition, he said, Georgetown wants to ensure that history students have a firm grasp of global history. “We see that as a strength,” he said.

At U-Md., history chair Philip Soergel said U.S. history is “enduringly popular” among history majors. “But if someone’s interests are in a completely different part of the world, that’s also defensible that they would study that,” he said.

Duke University’s history chair, John Jeffries Martin, said he believes universities must keep the global picture in mind. Duke does not require its history majors to take U.S. history, but Martin said his hunch is that most do a significant amount of their coursework in U.S.-related subjects regardless.

“If there is a problem — and I am not sure that there is one — it is perhaps the opposite of what the [report’s] authors imply: that is, that there is too little knowledge in U.S. society about other cultures,” Martin said. He said Duke faculty is “understaffed” in African, Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern history.

The council, founded in 1995, describes itself as a nonprofit organization “committed to academic freedom, excellence and accountability at America’s colleges and universities.” Last year it issued a report critical of colleges and universities that do not require English majors to take a course in Shakespeare.

The council’s latest study looked at schools ranked among the top 25 in U.S. News and World Report lists of liberal arts colleges, national universities and public universities.


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