Trustees | General Education

Should history majors be required to take U.S. history?

DUKE CHRONICLE   |  February 13, 2017 by Heather Zhou

A recent study shows that most colleges do not require history majors to take a course in U.S. history—findings that have been met with backlash from some and nonchalance from others. 

According to a July report on U.S. history requirements in academics, 53 out of the top 76 liberal arts colleges, national universities and public institutions did not require their students majoring in history to take a course specifically on U.S. history or government. The report was released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni—a nonprofit aiming to improve academic standards and safeguard “the free exchange of ideas on campus.” The report argued that such “weak academic standards” have created a circle of historical and civic illiteracy in college students.

“Those who do not know the history of the nation are, of course, much more likely to view its constitutional freedoms with nonchalance,” the report read.

Duke is among the institutions that do not require a U.S. history course for history majors or the general student body. However, the history department does require its students to select three courses from five geographic areas, including the U.S. and Canada, explained Bruce Hall, director of undergraduate studies and associate professor in the department of history.

“Very few history majors here would not take some American history,” Hall said. “In fact, some of our most popular courses are in American history.”

He added that Duke has an international reputation as being one of the top universities for the study of African American history.

“The implication [of the report]—if one didn’t know more about our history department—might seem like we are not taking American history seriously, but if you look at the number of faculty we have, at least a third of our faculty are teaching courses and doing research about American history,” he said.

Hall added that in the past, there was a “much more defined pathway” for the history major that concentrated more on modern American and European history. The curriculum was opened up in the past 15 years to allow a more student-directed experience, he added.

The report also points to Yale University and Rice University as examples of schools that recently implemented changes to remove U.S. history requirements. Most recently, George Washington University’s history department announced that its students would no longer have to take a course in U.S. history, leading to backlash from conservative media outlets.

Some Duke students argued that a required course on American history is would be beneficial and would not inhibit the goal of allowing students to pursue their own academic passions.

“One required course on American history out of 10 would not make a major Western-centric, nor would it take away the freedom to explore diverse interests,” said sophomore Elaine Zhong, who intends to major in history. “Understanding the past of a society is integral to understanding its present. How can you be an enlightened global citizen without being a domestic one first?”

Others voiced the concern that students who are not U.S. citizens might turn away from such a requirement.

“I understand that American history is not relevant to every student,” sophomore Isabella Arbelaez said. “I think the history department already focuses on appealing to a diverse range of students and making every student take a class on American history could deter some students from pursuing a history major.”

Jessica Malitoris, a graduate student in history and teaching assistant for “American Dreams and American Realities,” an undergraduate course in the department, expressed a similar view.

“As far as being required of history majors, I worry about the politics of privileging American history for someone who wants to specialize in history of other countries,” Malitoris said.

Addressing the report’s claim that the lack of course requirements on U.S. history has created civic illiteracy, Hall said that history courses at Duke do not focus on civics, but rather on a “critical inquiry, research-based, problem-solving approach.”

“Our goal is to have our students to develop the kind of critical skills that we think are really important for them,” he said. “We don’t try to communicate an American ideological notion about citizenship—that’s not our goal.”


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