History majors at top colleges don’t know much about U.S. history—or at least they don’t have to.
A new report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit group that advocates for accountability at schools, found that just 23 of the institutions among the 76 deemed to be the “best” by U.S. News & World Report’s 2016 rankings require history majors to take at least one U.S. history course.
Many elite schools, including Rice University and Johns Hopkins University, may require students to take courses about events from before 1750, or on East Asian and sub-Saharan African politics, without also demanding that they study the creation of the U.S. Constitution or the civil-rights movement.
The association said in its report that the absence of mandates that history majors take U.S. history classes with chronological and thematic breadth is “a truly breathtaking abandonment of intellectual standards and professional judgment.”
Students who make it to the top universities generally have taken U.S. history classes in high school. But Michael Poliakoff, president-elect of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said that doesn’t mean they have a solid understanding of the country’s founding principles or major social movements. The group found in a 2014 survey that a majority of U.S. college graduates don’t know the length of a congressional term or what the Emancipation Proclamation was.
Bill North, chairman of the history department at Carleton College, said the school doesn’t require history majors to take any U.S. history courses, in part because “we are committed to the idea that all histories are important and valuable in the cultivation of a robust civic consciousness.” He added that many students already performed well on the Advanced Placement U.S. history exam.
At the University of Pennsylvania, students must take a course in four of five geographic areas, including the U.S. and Canada. And while, in theory, students could avoid that region, spokesman Ron Ozio said, “In practice, that almost never occurs.”
The council said many courses tagged as U.S. history still leave students short of a thorough understanding of the country’s past.
Penn history students who pursue an American history concentration within the major can take classes including “Baseball in U.S. History,” while those at the University of Texas at Austin can partially fulfill their American history requirement by signing up for “Jews in American Entertainment.”
A representative from Texas wasn’t immediately available for comment.
“Niche classes are not going to prepare students for engaged citizenship,” Dr. Poliakoff said, adding that requiring that students take courses on broad slices of American history is “a question of academic responsibility.”