New research from the Center for American Institutions and the National Commission on the Teaching of American History in Our Universities finds that the material taught to college students in introductory American history courses is insufficient and inadequate to encourage good citizenship.
Researchers surveyed history course syllabi from colleges and universities across the country, dividing their assessments between courses focusing on the founding until 1877, and from 1877 to present day.
The commission, which was chaired by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and included former Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, found that courses too often dwelled on what instructors deemed to be the nation’s failings, rather than its triumphs.
“This report spotlights the stark and worrisome contrast between the topics most civically involved Americans would expect in an introductory survey course on American history and what many professors have decided to teach instead,” Center for American Institutions Director Donald Critchlow writes in an introductory letter accompanying the report. “Indeed, this report’s detailed analysis reveals the extent of the problem. Compiled data displays how higher education perpetuates this problem through ignorance.”
For example, more than 40% of the classes in the post-1877 group did not mention the terms “prosperity,” “freedom,” or “religion.” Also in the pre-1877 group, 80% of the classes only spent two full class periods discussing the contents, writing, and history of the Constitution. In comparison, many classes focused on the pre-Columbian/Settlement era for 4.5 class sessions on average, often framing this period in a negative anti-colonialism/American light.
“These professors’ choices stoke the flames of personal grievance and identity politics, speeding up the erosion of our civic culture when they should instead be working to mend it,” Critchlow writes.
History courses, those focused on Western, U.S., and World history, which have been in the gen-ed curriculum in most colleges, have been dropped by many. According to the CAI’s study, the arts and humanities are often conflated. Not only have history courses been dropped from gen-ed requirements, but there are far fewer students specializing in history. The number has dropped by more than one third from 2012 to the 2018-2019 year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The report also found that there is a significant lack of diversity among faculty members in American history, with many faculty using their courses as an opportunity to promote progressive causes and viewpoints.
Among their recommendations, the report authors urge states to adopt an “Educational Transparency Act” that would require colleges and universities to provide easily available course syllabi, student enrollment figures, and occupational outcomes, among other data. The authors also recommend that administrations should “insist on faculty searches with broad areas of expertise not restricted to candidates focused solely on racial, ethnic, and sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
The Arizona Board of Regents instituted a policy in 2021 to improve civic education at the university level. These new “American Institutions” requirements will mandate that students take civics courses and other foundational American history classes with specific curricula in order to graduate. These courses delve deep into American history, the founding, movements, and ideals.
In addition to the ABOR requirement for classes on American institutions, Arizona State University has enhanced its civic educational offerings through its School of Civic Economic Thought and Leadership, which focuses on civic education and covers a broad range of courses and topics. SCETL’s flagship class focuses on statesmanship, while others focus on the Constitution, history, literature, government, and religion. The school also boasts faculty and students with broad points of view and different areas of study.
The Center for American Institutions at ASU also promotes a non-partisan perspective. The CAI focuses on “Preserving and renewing our fundamental American institutions to maintain well-ordered liberty in an exceptional nation.”
At a state government level, Arizona requires students to pass a civics test to graduate from high school. The bill was passed by the Legislature in 2015 and signed into law by former Gov. Doug Ducey, marking the first bill signing of his administration and making Arizona the first state to adopt such a law.
In the private sector, groups are targeting younger students to encourage greater understanding of civics and the virtue of American institutions. One recent example is the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry’s partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Civics Bee to promote civic education in middle school classrooms. The National Civics Bee is a competition that encourages students to engage in civic education and contribute to their communities. Competitions around the country culminate in a final national competition in Washington, D.C.
The Center for American Institutions will publish “Civic Education in the Military” next spring.