Why Don’t Progressives Support U.S. History for Freshmen?

Herb London and KC Johnson have already posted on the disappointing findings of the ACTA project What Will They Learn? But it is worth pondering some of the implications of the report.  One of the more striking of them is the “Slightly less than 20% [of colleges surveyed] require U.S. government or history.”  As KC noted, the bar for qualification was set pretty low, with ACTA reporting that it

gives schools credit for U.S. Government or History if they require a survey course in either U.S. government or history with enough chronological and topical breadth to expose students to the sweep of American history and institutions.  Narrow, niche courses do not count for the requirement, nor do courses that only focus on a limited chronological period or a specific state or region.

Note that breadth is the only requirement. If within that requirement a teacher emphasizes racial or gender issues, if he or she highlights the guilty record of politicians, business leaders, or religious organizations, or if he or she emphasizes any other theme with sufficient scope, then the course would count and the school would get credit.  But less than one in five schools qualified.

Two points to make here. One, given the horrible performance of high school seniors on U.S. History exams such as NAEP’ periodic administration ( see latest results here, which have more than half of test-takers scoring “Below basic” every time), one would think that colleges could not avoid assigning a broad U.S. history course for every student during the freshman year. Two, given the progressivist insistence on historical knowledge, one would think that the left-leaning faculty would insist on the same in the general education requirements. One of their favorite slogans in the 1980s was “Always historicize!” That meant studying texts not primarily for their aesthetic virtues, their formal features, or their Great Books status. Instead, they were to be studied as representations of historical conditions. Of course, they could not attribute any representational standing to them unless they first recognized the historical realities that they represented.

This is one of the weaknesses of the progressivist curriculum as it has evolved in recent years. Instead of pressing their ideology to strengthen certain curricular contents (such as U.S. history), the professors turned their outlook to pedagogical reforms such as allowing more student choice in requirements, more niche courses that might excite the sophomoric mind, and more real-world connections. This is one area in which conservative and liberal professors should have found common cause, but diverged. Any Marxist worth the title would insist on deep historical knowledge just the same as would a traditionalist historian. Yes, the Marxist would highlight material conditions, while traditionalists might focus on military campaigns or political leaders, but both would probably agree on most of the proper contents of a first-year U.S. history course. Divergences would come in a more advanced stages.

One wonders where the genuine Leftists were when their schools dropped U.S. history from the gen ed roster.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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2 thoughts on “Why Don’t Progressives Support U.S. History for Freshmen?

  1. As I understand it, leftist professors are more interested in the history of various identity groups and how they’ve suffered instead of general history.

  2. Personally I think Americans should stick to US History exclusively and chuck world history because they get it sooooooooooooooo wrong.
    Just take a look at what “professors of South Asian studies” are doing to South Asia and Hindu Civilization.

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