Students & Parents | General Education

Requiring U.S. history weighed for colleges

ARIZONA REPUBLIC   |  August 2, 2006 by Matthew Benson

Arizona’s college classrooms will be dressed in patriotic garb by this time next year, sporting U.S. flags and copies of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Charles Mitchell of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni thinks it would be nice if students had a deeper understanding of them, as well.

But U.S. history isn’t a required course at any of Arizona’s major public universities. That fact, coupled with his group’s findings that America’s graduating college seniors are more familiar with Snoop Dogg and other MTV icons than the Founding Fathers has spurred Mitchell and others to take action. 

The council of trustees, a national group, is asking Arizona’s public universities to require at least one U.S. history course of every student before graduation. It has written letters to Gov. Janet Napolitano and 20 state lawmakers, asking them to pressure college regents and administrators to make the change.

“The flag doesn’t mean all that much if you don’t know how it got there,” Mitchell said. “What use is the Constitution if you don’t know how it was written?”

Although no one questions the value of American history, the council’s call hasn’t been universally welcomed on campus. 

Faculty members note funding and other logistical problems that would come with an additional curricular mandate.

Some are wary of what brand of history the American council has in mind, especially because, although nonpartisan, it counts conservative stalwarts ranging from Lynne Cheney to Bill Bennett among its leadership. 

What’s more, some students say they are–no offense, Thomas Jefferson–simply tired of studying our nation’s history by the time they reach college.

“You basically take U.S. history for your whole elementary and high school career,” said Kristina Guerra, 20, a junior majoring in English at Arizona State University. “It’s just really redundant. 

“How many times can you learn about the pilgrims?”

Founding principles

The debate comes as Arizona school districts and colleges prepare for a new state law that requires the presentation of the U.S. flag in every public classroom, as well as display of the Constitution and Bill of Rights in classrooms for Grades 7 through 12 and college.

The measure, approved this session by the Legislature and signed by the governor, takes effect July 1.

Although the law is well meaning, Mitchell said, it will do little on its own to ensure students have a grasp of the events and foundational documents that shape our nation.

State Rep. Russell Pearce agrees. The Mesa Republican said he is exploring legislation that would require colleges that received Arizona tax dollars to mandate their students take American history before receiving a diploma.

“I think we have a fundamental responsibility,” said Pearce, who sponsored the flag bill from this session. “The risk is losing our understanding and appreciation of the founding principles.”

Although U.S. history could hardly be further removed from Erica Bean’s focus on biology, the ASU senior called talk of the new course requirement “a good thing.”

“I think it’s very important to know what happened in our history,” said Bean, 21. “The past shapes the present.”

Historic problems

You won’t get any arguments from Karen Anderson on that point.

The chairwoman of the history department at the University of Arizona has no doubt that college students of today are woefully ignorant when it comes to the basics of our nation’s past. It has been that way for a while, apparently.

She relayed a story of a college class she taught about a decade ago. She asked the assembled students, 60 or so, how many were familiar with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case that struck down school segregation and was a major win for the civil rights movement.

Only a couple of hands raised.

“The level of ignorance on almost every point, every topic, is extraordinary,” Anderson said. 

But she is skeptical of pressure to bring U.S. history to the masses. More than 28,000 undergraduate students attend UA; ASU is home to roughly 46,000.

Those raw figures translate into a huge need for additional history professors, if the course was to ever become mandated for all.

Currently, she said, “we couldn’t possibly staff it; we can barely meet our majors’ and our grad students’ needs.”

Fifteen years ago, she said, UA had 10 U.S. history professors. Now it has six.

Northern Arizona University history Professor Charles Connell noted that fewer students than in the past are taking history as an elective. More, he said, are opting for trendier courses or those that are more clearly tied to an occupation.

Pearce argued that universities would have plenty of resources to meet the history demand if they would simply set priorities. Although Connell conceded that the priorities argument is “true at some level,” he said that adding a U.S. history requirement would run counter to recent university doctrine.

Schools are trying to be more flexible in their course offerings, he explained, with the range of class offerings becoming a serious matter between universities competing for students and their tuition dollars. And students already face tight course loads and struggle to complete their undergraduate degrees in the traditional four years.

Still, Pearce said, it can be done. Anderson would like to see Pearce and the Legislature put their money where their historical mandate is.

“If they want to start fooling with curriculum,” she said, “they’d better start pumping more money into the colleges. I don’t think some of the Republican legislators are going to be anxious to do that.”


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