A Big Campus Trend: Ignorance of U.S. History

This is an excerpt from the new ACTA report, No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major. It reveals that fewer than 1/3 of the nation’s leading colleges and universities require students pursuing a degree in history to take a single course in American history. Read the full report is here.

Although it is reasonable to assume that at America’s top-ranked colleges and universities, education for meaningful citizenship would be a priority, that is a false assumption. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has delved into the requirements and course offerings in history departments at 76 of the nation’s leading colleges and universities to see how U.S. history fits into their programs. Only 23 undergraduate history programs at the U.S. News & World Report’s top 25 national universities, top 25 public institutions, and top 25 liberal arts colleges require a single U.S. history class.

The overwhelming majority of America’s most prestigious institutions do not require even the students who major in history to take a single course on United States history or government. Disregard for the importance of United States history in the undergraduate history major is matched by the overall disappearance of United States history requirements from general education, the core curriculum that should be part of every student’s education. ACTA’s annual “What Will They Learn?” survey shows that only 18% of the over 1,100 four-year colleges and universities in the study, public and private, require a foundational course in United States history or United States government.

Related: What’s American about American History?

The consequences of these weak academic standards are clear. ACTA’s surveys of college graduates reveal year after year deep and widespread ignorance of United States history and government. In 2012, 2014, and 2015, ACTA commissioned the research firm GfK to survey college graduates’ knowledge of American history. ACTA sees the same dispiriting results each time:

  • Less than 20% could accurately identify—in a multiple-choice survey—the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Less than half could identify George Washington as the American general at Yorktown.
  • Only 42% placed the Battle of the Bulge in the history of World War II.
  • One-third of college graduates were unaware that FDR introduced the New Deal.
  • Nearly half did not know that Teddy Roosevelt played a major role in constructing the Panama Canal

. • Over one-third of the college graduates surveyed could not place the American Civil War in its correct 20-year time frame.

  • Nearly half of the college graduates could not identify correctly the term lengths of U.S. senators and representatives. Reputation and high tuition are no guarantee that students will know the history of their nation.

When ACTA commissioned a Roper survey of seniors at the “Top 50” colleges and universities, those holding the most prestigious positions in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, it found that only 29% could identify—in a multiple-choice survey—the definition of “Reconstruction.” Little more than half could identify the purpose of the Federalist Papers. Only 23% could name James Madison as the Father of the Constitution. And only 22% could match the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” with the Gettysburg Address.

Bottom line: No college or university can assume that students have even an elementary grasp of the important moments in United States history in the absence of a requirement for its study.

Related: “Big History’ Kicks U.S. History to the Back of the Class

Given what we know about the historical illiteracy of young Americans, it would seem irresponsible not to make the study of our history and government mandatory for all students. Not to require students majoring in history to take, at a minimum, a course with reasonable chronological and thematic breadth on the history of the United States would be a truly breathtaking abandonment of intellectual standards and professional judgment. We find in our study of the top 25 liberal arts colleges, the top 25 national universities, and the top 25 public institutions that only 23 programs out of 76 require a course on our nation’s history. That’s less than one-third.

Why top undergraduate departments behave this way is unclear. Perhaps it is from fear of seeming to endorse “American exceptionalism.” Or perhaps it comes from a naïve belief that American students already have a firm grasp of their nation’s history. Either way, the damage is real. Virtually all institutions offer comprehensive courses on America’s past, but the overwhelming majority do not take the vitally important next step of ensuring that all graduating majors have taken one of these courses.

Look at What Yale Does

This only-if-you-want-to approach will undoubtedly lead scores of history majors to graduate without ever taking a course on United States history beyond the high-school level. Yale University exemplifies this desire to maximize student choice at the cost of essential requirements.

It recently implemented a “specialist track” that allows history majors beginning with the class of 2017 to forgo a requirement in U.S. history whereas previous students were required to take at least two courses in the history of the United States or Canada. According to the department’s website, this new option was “created in response to students’ desire to focus in particular areas of interest earlier in the History major.” Likewise, Rice University required students who matriculated before fall 2014 to take one course in United States history, but their new set of requirements makes it merely optional.

It is not the case that history departments refuse to set any requirements for the major. Although a large majority of schools fail to require even a single course in U.S. history, as noted above, many do have geographical-distribution requirements excluding the United States.

Higher education leadership needs to face the problem squarely and take action. Our colleges and universities, whether in the name of “inclusion” or globalism or a debased hope that they will attract more students by eliminating requirements, have created a vicious circle of historical illiteracy and the civic illiteracy that accompanies it. This illiteracy extends to the troubling way that students view fundamental aspects of our nation’s structure of law and government.

A 2016 Gallup poll showed that 27% of college students supported “restricting the expression of political views that upset or offend certain groups.” Another 49% believed it is right to prevent reporters from covering protests held on college campuses if they believe the reporting will be “unfair.” Those who do not know the history of the nation are, of course, much more likely to view its constitutional freedoms with nonchalance.

What Students Need

If our colleges and universities seek to retain public support of their work, they must understand that a high-quality curriculum comes from informed choices, developed through the reason, professional training, and good sense of faculty and college leadership. Faculties have the right to pursue personal intellectual interests, but they also have an obligation to address what students need to learn.

Trustees and administrators should insist that departments articulate with far greater clarity what students should know. Until a college comes together as an academic institution and addresses the question of what it means to be a college-educated individual, the curriculum will continue its expensive, chaotic expansion to the detriment of students’ intellectual development. It is totally appropriate for trustees to insist upon a requirement for every undergraduate to study the history of the United States and its institutions.

In reviewing the history program, trustees and administrators should not hesitate to ask the provost and the chairman of the history department to explain the department’s rationale for what it does and does not require of history majors. While respecting academic freedom, good academic governance prioritizes the needs of students to have a meaningful and coherent curriculum. And that means ensuring that United States history is part of the history major’s program. If ever there were an educational imperative that should claim the interest of alumni and donors, it is ensuring that college graduates understand our nation.

Alumni outcry over deficiencies in the curricula of their institutions can be a powerful force for change. Donors, as individuals or as a consortium, can create initiatives with incentives to add core requirements. In other words, their funding can be used to build the capacity to add sections of essential courses in American history and government, with the institution’s agreement that the result would be a firm requirement for history majors to study the history of the United States, enhanced with new faculty resources. That requirement should quickly extend to every student pursuing a liberal arts degree. Such donations would be a contribution not only to the alma mater but also to the nation as a whole.

5 thoughts on “A Big Campus Trend: Ignorance of U.S. History”

  1. “If ever there were an educational imperative that should claim the interest of alumni and donors, it is ensuring that college graduates understand our nation.”

    While this may be the view outside academia, those who participate most intensely in the faculty curricula committees are far more interested in ensuring that college graduates *change* our nation. Too much understanding promotes sympathy for what has been the US before 1965. That will not allow the leverage for change that is desired. Further, it will note how fast the nation grew in wealth and peaceful change before the graduates of academia began dominating it.

  2. This was an excellent but very sad post. I feel our colleges and universities, for some unfathomable reason, are colludiding to dismantle the shared American Experience. We absolutely must make American Historyand Government a required part of every college curriculum. We need to be looking at things designed to bring us together. The statistics about students’ lack of understanding of our constitution and rights isabsolutely shocking. It makes me wonder what on earth they “learn” in high school.

  3. The saddest part is that a bunch of these questions shouldn’t even be left to University courses. They should be covered in high school. If you are going to be a VOTER, you should have at least learned about the constitution, the story of the civil war and emancipation, know who James Madison was, and be able to recognize the key personalities and presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon) and why they are important who helped create modern America.

    1. This was an excellent but very sad post. I feel our colleges and universities, for some unfathomable reason, are colludiding to dismantle the shared American Experience. We absolutely must make American Historyand Government a required part of every college curriculum. We need to be looking at things designed to bring us together. The statistics about students’ lack of understanding of our constitution and rights isabsolutely shocking. It makes me wonder what on earth they “learn” in high school.

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