Trustees | General Education

All history now

Don’t know much about …
ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT GAZETTE   |  July 10, 2016 by Editorial Board

Some of us cringe when the younger crowd uses the word history to mean something doesn’t matter any longer, or perhaps something is gone or soon will be. As in “I’m history” when leaving work. Or maybe, when somebody is benched on the ball field: “He’s history.”

Lord. As if the past is ever dead, as the man said. It’s not even past.

In a week of discouraging words, some of the most discouraging came from a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is apparently a nonprofit outfit that studies what’s up (and down) at college campuses. According to the papers, researchers with that group found that just 23 of the “best” colleges require history majors to take United States history classes.

Take a breath, Gentle Reader, and let that sink in, please. Of the 76 so-called best colleges in the country (as deemed by U.S. News & World Report), only about a third require history majors to take history classes on the subject of United States history.

Instead, a lot of these colleges might require students to take courses on history pre-1776. Or maybe East Asian and/or sub-Saharan African politics. But the Founding Fathers? The Civil War? The First and Second World Wars? Martin Luther King Jr., the flood of ’27 or the panic of 1837? Not so much.

The report said that the fact that some universities don’t require American history of history majors is “a truly breathtaking abandonment of intellectual standards.” Breathtaking is one way to describe it. Outrageous would be another. And even foolhardy.

But there are those who would defend the practice, or non-practice. Aren’t there always? Those who’d lower higher education always have their excuses. Whether promoting sports over academics, lowering standards generally, or getting rid of foreign languages specifically, some academic type will explain it all. In the most academic language possible. Take (please) Bill North, quoted in the Wall Street Journal the other day. He’s the chairman of the history department at Carleton College in Minnesota.

He said his department doesn’t require U.S. history of its history majors in part because “we are committed to the idea that all histories are important and valuable in the cultivation of a robust civic consciousness.”

That again. All history is equal, doncha know, and every nation thinks it is indispensable, from Greece to Bolivia to Lichtenstein. Although we can think of one nation that perfected motorized flight, won the Cold War, put computers on everybody’s desks (and phones), gave the world Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline, explored the solar system, and showed up a man named Hitler at the Olympics in ’36 (and again a few years later in another European skirmish).

We do understand, ahem, that the United States isn’t the only nation with a history. But we’re talking about history majors in history departments on American college campuses. You’d think the locals would have something to say. Or teach. You’d also think that some United States history would be a requirement for all students on campus–not just history majors. But that’s probably just an old way of thinking–the way some of us thought foreign languages, the arts, and a liberal education in general were important to be well-rounded and informed citizens. And some of us, the stubborn types, still believe that.

The report by the American Council of Trustees, etc., is easy enough to find on the Internet. Although you might want to take an antacid or two. For if you think the “top” colleges are lax in history requirements, other colleges are downright pitiful. Only 18 percent of the 1,100-some-odd four-year universities in the study require any foundational course on U.S. history or government.

A survey of college students included in the report shows the consequences:

–Fewer than 20 percent of those students could identify the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. In a multiple-choice format.

–Less than half knew in which war the Battle of the Bulge was fought.

–Less than half knew the name of the American general in charge when he and the French defeated the redcoats at Yorktown.

These things aren’t just matters that history majors should understand. Any citizen of the country should know these things.

Instead, at many colleges, even history majors can get a degree by taking History of Sexualities, Soccer and History in Latin America, Cigarette Smoking in the 20th Century, and Witchcraft and Possession. Folks, the joke is that we’re not kidding. Those are actual courses.

Is history, American history, important in oh-so-mod 2016? Well, we’ll take the advice of a man named George Washington, who was to have said: “We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.”

We wonder. How many young university types are thinking, George who?


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