The teaching of U.S. history in public high schools has received much attention in recent years. But what about the teaching of U.S. history at our colleges and universities?
A newly released commission report from the Center for American Institutions at Arizona State University presents a bleak picture. The imbalanced design of many introductory U.S. history courses guides impressionable students toward the conclusion that America is a failed experiment, leaving many college students with a starkly negative, narrow, and incomplete view of our country’s character and past.
Introductory courses in U.S. history – typically taught in two sections, the first half to 1877, and the second half since 1877 – play an outsized role in our university systems and have downstream effects on K-12 education. Many institutions require that non-history majors, as well as future K-12 teachers, enroll in the U.S. survey to fulfill General Education requirements. The requirement is perfectly understandable. To become informed citizens in our constitutional, democratic republic, graduates ought to have a well-rounded, basic knowledge of the history of our country. For some students, especially foreign nationals, the U.S. survey will be their first and last exposure to a comprehensive history of the United States.
These facts make the Center for American Institutions commission all the more concerning. The commission on the Teaching of American History included former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Academic researchers for the commission examined syllabi for introductory U.S. history courses at the nation’s top-ranked colleges and universities. The research revealed that foundational topics and themes in U.S. history are frequently absent. Many of the courses were taught through a presentist perspective, examining and interpreting history through the lens of contemporary politics, issues, and concerns. Absent from many of these courses were complexity, nuance, debate, and global context. Instead, many of the courses elevated an overly simplistic assessment of the past, devoid of much of the richness and complexity that characterized each historical period. It would be wrong and misguided if this were pursued in order to paint a false and extravagantly rosy picture of United States history. But in this case, it paints a false and extravagantly negative picture of United States history.
The first half of the U.S. survey, to 1877, covers the colonial period through the Civil War and Reconstruction. One syllabus for the first half of the survey announced that upon completion of the course, students will “grasp how inequality was woven into the nation’s very constitutions.” Another announced that upon completion of the course, students will “see how race and racism is snarled in every part of U.S. history.” Another course at a prestigious state university devoted the first three weeks of the U.S. survey to “ecological imperialism” and “cultural imperialism.”
“We will spend considerable time learning about major themes that trouble the present-day,” an instructor at the university announced in the syllabus, “including the expropriation of Native American lands; the entwined histories of race, slavery, and freedom; the creation and recreation of gendered economic, political, social relations; and the rise of capitalism.”
The second half of the survey, U.S. history since 1877, is by far the more ideological and biased of the two. Many of the syllabi examined for this study were nakedly political. Most syllabi intensively focused on identity topics of race, gender, sexuality, queer theory, and militant social protest. The predominant takeaway for students in many of these classes was American history as a history of exclusion, chiefly organized around identity.
Neglected topics included basic political history, including various presidential administrations, pivotal elections, and party development. Legal history was generally excluded, as was military history and diplomatic history. Conservatism, of course, was almost universally framed in a negative context. Primary readings from conservative thinkers were rarely assigned.
Absent, also, was any indication that the United States had made real and significant progress on civil rights and race relations in the 20th century. Moreover, there was rarely any indication that the average standard of living, for all people, increased substantially across the twentieth century (better housing, health, education, and technology); instead, students were often fed an anti-market, anti-consumerist narrative about the corrupting effects of capitalism. Social, economic, and technological advancements received virtually no mention; instead, post-World War II America was often portrayed as a period – not of prosperity and expanding freedom – but of greed, decline, sexism, homophobia, and racism.
Many courses ended the semester on a sour note: the “Decline of America” and the “End of the American Empire” were common themes in course syllabi. Students exiting such a course would naturally conclude that the American experiment had failed, that it was never successful, and that drastic, revolutionary activism in the present time might therefore be warranted. Appropriately, the supplemental readings in many of these courses often championed political and social justice activism.
One syllabus, for example, announced that students will learn about the “diversity of American experiences with specific emphasis on race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation.” The final weeks of the course included the following topics: “Women’s Lib and Second Wave Feminism,” “Native Americans and Red Power,” “Gay Liberation and LGBTQ Activism,” “Chicano Activism and Latino Movements,” “Environmentalism and Green Movements,” “The Triumph of the Right,” and “From Witch-hunts and Communist-hunts to Terrorist-hunts.”
Another syllabus at a separate university devoted an entire week to, “Final Frontiers: The Cultural War, LGBTQ Rights, and the Fight against Ablelism.”
Besides sacrificing truth for fiction, the extraordinary bias of our introductory U.S. history courses contributes to the erosion of our civic culture. It undermines the noble effort to create a common, shared vision for America’s future. It distorts our shared past, exacerbates divisions within our society, and discourages a fuller understanding of the entirety of U.S. history.
So what do we do? The report includes several noteworthy suggestions.
First, state legislatures should require educational transparency. Academic units at all public universities should be required to make syllabi publicly available and accessible so that we know what our tax dollars are being used to teach. Most syllabi, at most universities, are not available to the public.
But also we desperately need intellectual diversity. One recent study of the nation’s top 40 colleges and universities, for example, found that among History faculty, there are 33.5 Democrats for every single Republican. That is obviously unacceptable and flagrantly unrepresentative of the public and student body. Upper administrations and deans should insist on faculty searches that are not so narrowly tailored that they rule out candidates who are not ideologically aligned with the orthodox political persuasion. Certainly, at a minimum, DEI statements should be immediately abolished as ideological litmus tests.
Finally, a multi-disciplinary approach – including interdisciplinary degree programs with more expansive curricula – could encourage dialogue across the disciplines and potentially foster greater intellectual diversity among the faculty.
The United States of America is a great experiment in freedom, constitutional government, and well-ordered liberty. But the experiment is fragile. To preserve and maintain it – to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity – we must have robust, vibrant American institutions, including institutions of higher education. Let’s reform the teaching of U.S. history at our colleges and universities.
Jonathan Barth is Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University. He specializes in the history of money and banking, in the early modern period, with corollary interests in politics, empire, culture, and ideas.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.