Trustees | General Education

Don’t ignore history basics

AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN   |  January 21, 2013 by Daniel Burnett

Don’t know much about history? You’re not alone.

A recent Roper survey found that American college graduates are woefully ignorant of their history and heritage. Only 57 percent of college graduates knew John Roberts is the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Less than one fifth could identify James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.” Perhaps worst of all, barely half of the respondents knew that the U.S. Constitution establishes the separation of powers.

And this is from a multiple-choice survey of college graduates, presumably the leaders of tomorrow.

Our research has found that the most comprehensive requirements in the nation for collegiate study of American history and government exist in Texas. In our core curricula survey of more than 1,000 schools nationwide, 31 out of 34 public and private higher ed Texas institutions included in the report received an “A” or “B” grade. Three schools—Texas A&M; University-Corpus Christi, University of Dallas, and the University of Texas-San Antonio—were among the 21 “A” schools.

At most American colleges, there is no history or government requirement at all; at others, a wide array of narrow and often trendy courses satisfy the requirements, making it no requirement at all. That’s why, nationwide, only 18 percent of institutions get credit for requiring either a foundational course in American history or one in American government. In Texas alone, on the other hand, that number is 82 percent.

It’s clear why. While Texas’ approach is not perfect, it is one of the few states in the nation that actually mandates students study American history or government before they graduate. Every undergraduate must complete six semester hours of coursework in American government, including Texas government, and six semester hours of coursework in American history, allowing up to three hours of Texas history.

A recent study by the National Association of Scholars now makes some worthwhile suggestions on how Texas could be even better. The report, “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?” examines in detail how students at Texas institutions satisfy the American history requirements.

While recognizing Texas’ achievement in making such courses statewide requirements and commending it to the attention of other states, the report digs deeper and finds that the assigned readings in their multitude of sections of introductory American history courses, especially at the University of Texas, focus heavily on issues of race, class, and gender, often at the expense of other crucial and fundamental topics.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has found that nationwide, all too often, specialized, narrowly focused courses such as “History of Rock and Roll,” or “Natural Disasters: Hollywood vs. Reality” represent the one exposure students have to American history in college. Should Stanford’s course, Music 17, featuring drumming, “Japanese music and Japanese American history, and relations among performance, cultural expression, community, and identity” stand in fulfillment of American history?

As interesting as these topics are, they cannot alone tell the history of America. The cost of this skewed focus is the complete neglect of such topics and documents as, for example, the Mayflower Compact, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, or the contributions of such figures as John Dewey, Alexander Graham Bell, or the Wright Brothers.

The report’s conclusion: narrow history classes are so out of focus that they “intellectually shortchange” students.

There is a silver lining here, which is that the report points the way for trustee action. Going forward, trustees should insist that students get the broad base of knowledge the state requires and the country needs. There’s no problem with niche courses—in fact, they make a college education more vibrant—but not at the expense of a working knowledge of the Constitution.

Trustees are not in the business of micromanaging; nor should they dictate lesson plans for the professors. But it is the inherent responsibility of an institution’s trustees to ensure that students get a high quality education—with no intellectual shortchanging.

Alumni and the public should speak up for the broad base of knowledge that students deserve and our country requires. Professors should ensure students are comfortable speaking out about divergent views in their classrooms. College administrators and department heads should set institutional policy that promotes academic freedom and intellectual and disciplinary diversity. And students should demand no less than a high quality education.

Thomas Jefferson warned us at the birth of this nation that ignorant and free cannot exist together. The National Association of Scholars report calls university deans, provosts, and trustees to review curricula carefully and ensure that students graduate with a full and sound knowledge of the history of our nation.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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