Alumni | General Education

​An American past, a global present

DUKE CHRONICLE   |  February 17, 2017 by Editorial Board

Earlier this week, an article published in The Chronicle highlighted a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the subsequent debates regarding the relevance of American history in college curriculums throughout the country. The report, titled “No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major,” stresses that 53 out of the 76 collegiate institutions surveyed—Duke included—do not require undergraduate history majors to take a course relating to U.S history. According to the report, the lack of a U.S history requirement is both dangerous to higher education and leads to a “vicious circle of historical illiteracy and the civic illiteracy that accompanies it.”

Possessing a firm grasp of U.S history and government is no doubt important for all undergraduates at Duke. Whether after Duke we venture into policy making in Washington D.C. or find ourselves pipelined into Wall Street or consulting, possessing an understanding of our country’s past is essential to fully dedicate ourselves to “knowledge in the service of society.” However, as highlighted in the aforementioned report, this knowledge should be a “balanced study of the story of our nation, the high and low points in our history, our successes and failures.” Many public school systems across the country do an inadequate job of engaging with this multifaceted view of American history, glossing over unfortunate events in our nation’s past such as lynchings and the Japanese American internment. Duke, as one of the premier undergraduate institutions in the country, should help to rectify such a one-sided approach to U.S history.

However, the current Duke undergraduate curriculum, within the history department and outside of it, is already heavily biased towards an American/Eurocentric viewpoint. Many courses offered by the history department relate in some way or another to American history, such as the popular signature course, “American Dreams/American Realities,” which dissects the many inherent myths existing within American history. Further, as reiterated in the aforementioned article, the Director of Undergraduate Studies for History at Duke, Bruce Hall, emphasizes that “Very few history majors here would not take some American history.” Requiring history majors specifically to take an American history course would merely reinforce this American centered perspective unto undergraduates and would not significantly improve civic or historical literacy.

Being a global research university–one with its own functioning satellite campus in China–we have an obligation to consider all global perspectives in our curriculum, history included. Students at Duke, both international and domestic, are already are learning American culture and history from a variety of classes at Duke, whether it be through literature, political science, ethics or history. Requiring history majors to specifically take an American history course might impose a viewpoint that runs contrary to the mission of Duke as a global institution.

We understand the importance of all histories, including U.S. history, in a Duke education. However, a requirement specifically requiring Duke history majors to take a U.S history course is not necessary and goes against the values of Duke as a global research university that embraces a diverse range of perspectives. In understanding our nation’s past during our undergraduate years at Duke, we should seek to engage a whole set of global and local viewpoints instead of merely focusing on a perspective that stresses American exceptionalism.


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