Trustees | General Education

PolitiFact: How to get a history degree without U.S. history

AUSTIN-AMERICAN STATESMAN   |  February 4, 2017 by W. Gardner Selby

Sounding a tad exasperated, a Texas Supreme Court justice told participants at a legislative forum that many young Americans have too little knowledge about basic U.S. civics and history.

“Get this,” Don Willett said at a January event hosted by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. “The overwhelming majority of America’s elite universities, they no longer require history majors to take a single course in American history.”

We put that statement to the Texas Truth-O-Meter.

First, we asked Willett the basis of his claim. Willett pointed to a July 2016 report by the Washington-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which says it’s an independent group “committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America’s colleges and universities.”

The report states that 23 of the 76 U.S. colleges and universities ranked highest by U.S. News & World Report were requiring students seeking a history degree to take courses in American history — so, 70 percent were not.

The report says that, among the high-ranked institutions requiring a course in American history, “11 allow courses so narrow in scope — such as ‘History of Sexualities’ or ‘History of the FBI’ — that it takes a leap of the imagination to see these as an adequate fulfillment of an undergraduate history requirement.”

The study’s lead author, Michael Poliakoff, told us that the research didn’t try to gauge how many history students actually take at least one U.S. history course; rather, it focused on the universities’ degree requirements.

We spot-checked some of the report’s findings, starting with the two Texas universities included in the review.

Rice University, the report says, previously required history majors to take a U.S. history course, “but their new set of requirements makes it merely optional.”

On a web page, Rice says that each history major matriculating after fall 2014 must take 10 history courses including one each in four of five fields: Premodern; Europe; U.S.; Asia, Latin America, Africa; and transnational history. That would indicate there’s a good chance a Rice history major will take American history, but it’s not required.

The University of Texas does require history majors to take two U.S. history courses. UT spokesman, J.B. Bird, noted by email that by state law, every degree-seeking student at Texas public colleges and universities — regardless of major — must take a couple of American history courses.

We sought out a national expert and spoke with Jim Grossman of the Washington-based American Historical Association, which describes itself as the nation’s largest professional organization serving historians in all fields and professions.

Grossman also told us that most institutions don’t have a major in American history. “A student majors in history,” he said, “and in the best programs that major includes a wide variety of courses, enabling a student to develop the skills and habits of thought that a history major provides, but from a wide variety of angles.”

Grossman noted that the report didn’t seek to tally the history courses that students actually take. “I wish I had such data,” he said.

Our ruling:

Willett said the “overwhelming majority of America’s elite universities” don’t require history majors to take a course in American history.

In 2016, some 70 percent of the country’s 76 colleges and universities most highly ranked by U.S. News & World Report didn’t require history majors to take American history, a study shows. But there’s evidently no current research on what students actually take, so it’s unclear how many students majoring in history do take U.S. history even if it’s not required.

With that clarification, we rate this claim Mostly True.


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