When state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione’s parents immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s–his father from Italy, his mother from Venezuela–they both learned American history as part of their commitment to becoming U.S. citizens.
Now, as a first-term member of the Texas House, Capriglione, R-Southlake, says that Texas universities are falling down on their job of delivering the kind of comprehensive knowledge of American history that the U.S. government expects of new citizens.
Consequently, Capriglione, 40, is pushing legislation to require universities to rigidly adhere to a 1955 law requiring all university students to take six hours in American history, from the nation’s earliest days to the present.
Many universities have strayed from the intent of that law, he says, by offering more narrowly defined history courses that give only a partial view of the nation’s past.
The bill has provoked a fierce outcry from opponents–including the NAACP and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF–who accuse Capriglione of trying to eliminate ethnic studies programs, such as African-American history and Mexican-American history.
State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who is sponsoring an identical bill in the Senate, has also come under fire.
A Houston-based group called Libotraficantes Unite organized a call-to-action day today to generate public awareness of the Capriglione-Patrick legislation. The campaign calls for community meetings in at least seven cities, including Dallas, to map out strategy to kill the bill and organize political assaults on lawmakers who vote in favor of it.
“It’s effectively dismantling Latino-American history,” said Tony Diaz, a Houston writer and a founder of the group. “It’s discrediting our history.”
Capriglione adamantly disputes that.
“You know, it’s really difficult when my name is Giovanni Capriglione to go and say, ‘Hey, I’m against ethnic studies,'” he said. “That’s absolutely not true.”
Capriglione and Patrick say that history courses often focus on single topics such as race and gender. They cite specific courses dealing with the culture of alcohol and drugs or the history of popular music.
One, Capriglione said, focused on the Navy.
“When we ask you to do a course on math, we’re not telling you to do just addition,” he said. “You have to include subtraction, you have to include multiplication.”
Diaz and other critics say the Texas legislation is reminiscent of a controversial 2010 law in Arizona banning ethnic studies classes that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.”
Further, Diaz said, by not allowing universities to meet history requirements with topical studies such as Mexican-American history, ethnic studies would be transformed into electives with reduced stature in the curriculum.
“If ethnic studies is demoted to an elective, fewer students will take it, fewer classes will be [scheduled]. Teachers will start to get fired,” Diaz said. “It has a trickledown effect.”
Emilio Zamora, a University of Texas-Austin history professor who opposes the bill, says current policy allows universities to offer “the equivalent” to a broad survey course.
“They could include Civil War history to U.S. economic history, ethnic group history, Jewish history, women’s history. These [are] basically U.S. history courses that focus on various themes and topics that are prominent in U.S. history.”
Jeremi Suri, another UT history professor, said: “We don’t allow what you might call specialty boutique subjects to fulfill this requirements. They are all courses that deal with big issues and deal with long periods of American history. Now some of them are more topically focused than others, but that’s only because you can’t cover everything.”
Thomas K. Lindsey, higher education director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a limited-government think tank in Austin, endorsed the legislation as what he called a needed step to revitalize the teaching of U.S. History.
A survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni of the nation’s 55 best colleges and universities, he said, found that 81 percent of college seniors received a D or F on test questions drawn from a basic high school history curriculum.
Capriglione cited a survey that found that less than 50 percent of Americans could identify Joe Biden as the vice president.
The “lack of knowledge of American history,” Capriglione said, contributes to an erosion of civic responsibility.
Capriglione’s bill would clarify the 1955 law requiring six hours of history by stating that only general survey courses would fulfill the requirement. He has no problem with the specialty courses, he said, but they no longer would be allowed to meet the statutory mandate.
“If you as a parent want pay for your son or daughter to study about hip-hop between a certain number of years, that’s fine,” Capriglione said.
“But you should not be allowed to take those courses in lieu of learning about the Founding Fathers, about the Declaration of Independence, about the Alamo … about how the United States was formed.”
Capriglione said his parents, who came to the U.S. in 1972, instilled in him a deep appreciation of history. His father worked on a manufacturing assembly line, and his mother was a homemaker.
“One of the most wonderful things that happened to me at a young age was that my parents immersed me in the culture of the United States,” he said.
“I’m proud and that’s why I’m putting this bill forward and that’s why I defend it.”