This past November, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) released the second edition of “No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major.” Higher education donors may want to take a look at this report, which reveals the sorry state of American history courses at our nation’s top institutions of higher education. The measurements used are whether a college or university requires a wide-ranging American history course of its history majors and in its general education core. The results are dismal.
The report’s findings show:
- “Only one of the top 25 national universities, the University of California–Berkeley, requires all history majors to complete a wide-ranging course in U.S. history. (Three additional schools require students to choose a course from a list that includes narrow and niche options.)
- Only four of the top 25 public universities require history majors to complete a wide-ranging course in U.S. history. (Eight additional schools require students to choose a course from a list that includes narrow and niche options, and three schools have a U.S. history course in the core curriculum but not in the major.)
- Only three of the top 25 liberal arts colleges require history majors to complete a wide-ranging course in U.S. history. (Three additional schools require students to choose a course from a list that includes narrow and niche options, and one school has a U.S. history course in the core curriculum but not in the major.)
- Of the 45 universities for which complete information is available (and which offered history majors going back to 1952), 32 required history majors to complete a wide-ranging course in U.S. history in 1952 (major or core curriculum), compared to only nine today.
- The trend is starkest at leading public universities. Fourteen of 16 required history majors to complete a wide-ranging course in U.S. history in 1952; only five do today.
- A majority of liberal arts colleges, 12 out of 18, required history majors to complete a course in U.S. history in 1952 (major or core curriculum); only four do today (two of which are service academies).”
If you’re wondering what a “narrow or niche option” might look like, the “History of Mental Health and Mental Illness in the United States” is being offered this semester at Cornell University. At Penn State, a student might be enrolled in an American history course titled “The Consumer Revolution.” And Middlebury College currently offers a course called “Mad Men and Mad Women,” which utilizes “AMC’s Mad Men as a visual and narrative foundation” to “examine masculinity and femininity in mid-20th century America.”
These courses are no doubt interesting and informative and it’s not hard to understand their appeal. Taken alone, however, they will not build the civic literacy necessary to understand the principles that have shaped our republic, the responsibilities of citizenship and the virtue and sacrifice required to defend American history and our freedoms. There may have been a time when institutions of higher education might have reasonably assumed that freshmen would arrive on their campuses with a solid grounding in civics and United States history. Sadly, we know that is no longer the case.
The ACTA report confirms what many critics of the nation’s colleges and universities have argued in recent years — that by shedding a common core of coursework and marginalizing traditional survey courses in American history and Western Civilization, these institutions are contributing to the polarization that currently characterizes our political system. In a January 15 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, John Ellis, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, warned that academia’s deleterious impact on our country “will intensify as the number of people who have graduated from radicalized campuses increases and the number of those who graduated with a conventional college education declines.”
In her recent Commentary book review of “Rescuing Socrates,” Naomi Schaefer Riley, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the book’s author, Roosevelt Montás, credits the rapidly disappearing core curriculum with transmitting “a range of shared institutions, norms, categories and values in which we all participate and in which we all have a stake.” Montás, a senior lecturer in American Studies at Columbia University, went on to say, “My being a brown immigrant from the Dominican Republic does not make the Constitution less relevant to me than it is to my wife, a white woman born in rural Michigan.”
Donors to institutions of higher education may want to take a hard look at the state of American history at the schools they support and direct their resources in ways that ensure increased attention to our nation’s common legacy and shared values. “No U.S. History?” provides detailed information on over 70 of those colleges and universities.
They also should keep an eye on Philanthropy Roundtable’s Programs team, which has made “America’s Founding Principles” one of its primary focus areas. The identification of organizations and initiatives that defend our founding principles, contribute to a robust civics education and ensure that the needs of members of the military are met after they leave service may provide some stirring examples to bring to our college campuses.