U.S. history required – in college?

Third or fourth time is the charm, right?

In Arizona, where the legislature recently decreed a U.S. flag and a copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights will be displayed in all college classrooms, the debate now turns to whether the legislature should require the study of U.S. history by undergraduates. I appears the legislators do not find college kids have enough appreciation for our nation’s history.

I’ll reproduce the entire story out of the Arizona Republic below the fold (Dan Quayle’s family’s newspaper!).

Is it just me, or is it that these pseudo-patriots who don’t think our kids are well-enough indoctrinated always stamp the life out of history when they start these tirades? I have yet to find a law that mandates that history be interesting. Instead we get standards that provide great, boring, history-crushing, mind-and-butt-numbing lists. In short, these requirements tend to make history not worth the study.

And, as with those who celebrate Fillmore’s bringing the bathtub to the White House, the advocates almost always get history wrong. [Millard Fillmore himself, never attended college; he apprenticed first in the cloth business, and then in law.]

Barry Goldwater will be coming out of his grave to stop this silliness. Maybe literally. If such standards don’t make high school students history literate, what makes anyone think the failed methods would work on college students? If the standards do work to make high school kids knowledgeable in history, why would the college standards be necessary?

This controversy smells. It has the earmarks of being one more way to issue diatribes against “librul college professors.” It’s one more way of flogging public education, while refusing to give educators the tools to solve the problems.

Article below the fold; please comment.

Requiring U.S. history weighed for colleges

Not everybody agrees on subject

Matthew Benson
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 2, 2006 12:00 AM (Fair Use copy)

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.”

Reach the reporter at (602) 444-4947.

2 Responses to U.S. history required – in college?

  1. […] In Arizona, where the legislature recently decreed a U.S. flag and a copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights will be displayed in all college classrooms, th… Read More » […]


  2. R. Becker says:

    The article said this: “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.”

    Well, that is more or less nonsense. First, students don’t take history throughout their primary and secondary education years. They take social studies. Not the same thing at all, much of the time.

    If states were serious about improving history education, step one would be to reverse the insane standard [now in place more or less nationwide] that 11th grade HS history should concentrate almost exclusively on post-Reconstruction American History because “they had the earlier stuff in 8th grade.” [The quote from a Louisiana Department of Education policy-maker when, some years ago, I questioned the then new policy of removing all post 1877 material from the state exit-exam in history, and the shifting of nearly all 11th grade history teaching to post-1877.

    Of course, there were other reasons for the shift, usually discussed only off the record. One was that if they cut the amount of history students would be tested on on the exit exams to only post-1877 material, then the pass rate would rise…. a matter of some considerable political importance in the state. And I was told dealing with the slavery crisis, the civil war and Reconstruction in the 11th grade produced tensions [meaning racial tensions] in HS classrooms and it was just easier all around not to bring it up.

    So this notion that they’ve “had” history all their educational careers in elementary, middle and high school is plain nonsense.

    And this of course doesn’t even begin to address the tendency in many schools [not all] to have “coach” teach [excuse the term] history as a list of names and dates to be memorized on the general theory that, really, anybody can teach history. It’s not like you actually have to know much, as, for example, a math or science teacher does. A text book, a piece of chalk, access to a xerox machine, a black board and a video projector and you’re set to go as a history teacher. Besides, “coach” needs something to do in the off season.

    When states begin addressing these matters, I’ll take claims that they mean to improve history education seriously. But not until then.

    Sorry for the rant. This one touches a sore spot and pet peeve of long standing for me.


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