Trustees | General Education

A history degree without U.S. history? Possible at America’s top colleges

HOUSTON CHRONICLE   |  July 8, 2016 by Benjamin Wermund

Some of America’s top colleges, including Rice University in Houston, don’t require history majors to take a single U.S. history course, according to a recent report.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a national nonprofit, surveyed history programs at 76 of the best universities in the nation and found that 53 colleges — including Ivy League colleges like Harvard and Yale — grant history degrees to students who haven’t taken American history courses. The group’s report says that’s a bad thing.

“We would also expect that students who major in history would receive particularly rigorous instruction in the history of the United States and the development of its institutions of government,” the report said. “It is common sense. Maintaining our form of government requires
knowledge of our institutions of government, how they evolved over time, the strengths and weaknesses they have shown.”

But just because students aren’t required to take U.S. history courses at these colleges doesn’t mean most aren’t actually taking them. The Washington Post interviewed faculty at some of the schools highlighted in the report who said most history majors take American history courses, regardless of the requirements at their respective colleges.

“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,” Daniel Lord Smail, chair of the history department at Harvard, told the Post.

That’s the case at Rice, too, said B.J. Almond, a spokesman for the university. U.S. history is a “strength” of Rice’s history department and is one of the most popular courses in the department and in the school of humanities, Almond said.
“While it is technically possible to obtain a history major without taking U.S. history, most history majors at Rice do take courses in U.S. history,” Almond said.


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