Trustees | General Education

The best way to change future is to understand history

An American history course requirement could foster a wider understanding of the present day in all its nuance
THE BADGER HERALD   |  September 4, 2018 by Adam Ramer

According to a recent study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, vast majorities of college students could not correctly answer basic questions on civics. From identifying protections outlined in our Bill of Rights to knowing certain founding fathers, knowledge on civics seems to be waning.

The University of Wisconsin is not without fault in this drop in knowledge. UW history majors are not required to take an American history course. Universities should require all students to be well-versed in a thorough civics education.

History majors are required to earn a breadth requirement within the major — a process that requires taking four courses among a list of themes. By this rule, it is not technically required that one takes an American history class to graduate with a history major.

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It’s not only history majors who would benefit from an American history course. All prerequisites serve a purpose, they not only give way to a broader education, but give us ways to expand the ways we think. Simply put, they offer lessons beyond just their syllabus.

That’s exactly what history and American history courses accomplish. History courses are about seeking truth and retelling stories buried by time. In these stories are numerous warnings, motivations and lessons waiting to be uncovered.

A history course teaches lessons in critical thinking — they do more than just teach facts to be memorized. No history class I have taken has been based on regurgitating facts — they all include essays focused on understanding motivations which led to certain events, not the events themselves.

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These courses are more than learning rudimentary dates or placing a congenial timeline of who conquered whom — history is a vehicle of humanity and of understanding the world. To understand and to study history is as inherently about the future as it is about the past. If we want to understand the present climate of our political institutions, we have to look back in time at how societies have reacted, how the society has morphed and how history has played out.

In the past few years, it’s becoming more evident our country has swayed drastically from the guiding principles once fought for at its inception. People are frantically looking towards the past in an effort to connect history to the present for answers or clarity.

It’s cliché to suggest history repeats itself. Of course, history does repeat itself — history is nothing more than the culmination of decisions made by people over years. History is not a singular entity, it’s palpable and capable of being shaped. The best way to change history is to understand it. A very simple and tangible way to achieve this would be by making an American history course a general requirement for all UW students before they graduate.

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Taking a history class expands past the factual basis of our country’s birth or political and social factors that flowed and motivated revolution — it allows for one to better understand the shaping of history and to better understand the shaping of society.


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