On March 22 the N.C. House passed a bill that would require a U.S. history course for graduation from community colleges and universities.
In a largely party-line vote, Republican proponents argued it’s important to educate students about traditional documents such as the U.S. Constitution and Gettysburg Address. They cited one example of a young person who, when asked to describe the Gettysburg Address, responded “Who’s Mr. Gettysburg?” Democratic opponents expressed fear the law could lead to limits on how history is taught.
Another proposal by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees to create a new School of Civic Life and Leadership is provoking controversy, with some professors saying it would lead to required content that undermines the faculty’s role in overseeing academics.
A similar debate has been building nationally as politicians in Florida and elsewhere have sought to prescribe how parts of history are taught, notably African American history.
‘A certain type of history’
“History courses are necessary, but I think politicians need to stay out of our universities,” says Jürgen Buchenau, a history professor and director of capitalism studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “They don’t want history to be taught. They want a certain type of history to be taught. They’re not telling us what we need to do in math or chemistry.”
Sarah Griffith, a history professor at Queens University of Charlotte, says most people agree history is important. “If they didn’t think it was important, they wouldn’t fight so much about it…. They know who gets to be a part of history and who doesn’t get to be part of history is incredibly powerful.”
Griffith adds that she is terrified by laws passed by some other states that provide penalties for professors who don’t follow prescribed content for history courses. One of her greatest joys as a teacher, she says, is sparking conversations in class that cause students to think. “If we can’t think, if we can’t ask questions, if we can’t be curious, to me that’s a scary place.”
Dan Aldridge, professor of history and Africana studies at Davidson College, predicts, “When people without any expertise, but a lot of opinions, try to regulate what happens in colleges and schools, it will lead to educational decline.”
Even though as a private school, Davidson wouldn’t be affected by state laws prescribing course content, Aldridge says, “We’re in solidarity with the people in public schools. We don’t want our partners in public schools constrained by politicians trying to tell you what you can and cannot teach.”
In April, Aldridge is scheduled to participate in a conference with the chairs of black studies departments in North Carolina public and private colleges to discuss politicians’ efforts to regulate how black history is taught.
House Bill 96 is the Republican-sponsored legislation that would require at least three credit hours in American history or government to get a bachelor’s degree from the UNC system or an associate’s degree from a community college. Students would be required to read the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions, the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr, Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from Birmingham Jail, at least five essays from the Federalist Papers and the Gettysburg Address. University chancellors and community college presidents could be removed if they failed to implement the new requirement.
The bill is now being considered by the Senate.
In late January the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees unanimously adopted a resolution requesting that the university administration accelerate the development of a School of Civic Life and Leadership to develop skills in public discourse for promoting democracy and benefiting society. But faculty members at the university say they’ve been left in the dark, and now the institution’s accreditor has promised to determine if the board has overstepped its appropriate role, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Common ground on history requirement
Like the other Charlotte area history professors interviewed, Barry Robinson, history department chair at Queens, supports requiring students to take at least one history course. But he says, “I do not think that it is in the best interest of students for legislatures to micromanage what goes into the course curriculum….This raises questions about academic freedom, a keystone of higher education, that are sure to be problematic for many educators.”
David Williams, vice provost for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Belmont Abbey College, says it’s reasonable for a college’s board of trustees to expect that curriculum broadly reflect the institution’s mission, identity and strategic goals, “but boards of trustees should not be writing syllabi.”
“History is something of a battleground,” Williams adds. “When history becomes political, when people are arguing in the present about the present implications of the past, especially in this country, where so much of the history is wound up with race-based slavery.… Present fights and present theories wind up clouding the past.”
Robinson of Queens notes that “politics has influenced the discipline of history since it started to be written down, and interpretations of history have likewise affected politics.” The recent debate, he adds, reflects tension between “historians who seem to have worked to acknowledge the voices of people who were traditionally left out of the historical record and politicians who seem to view this effort as an attack on their understanding of U.S. history or a negative critique of the status quo.”
‘Not our job to indoctrinate’
The history professors interviewed agreed students should be exposed to all parts of history.
“It’s not our job to indoctrinate students,” says Buchenau of UNC Charlotte. “It’s our job to teach students different perspectives and have them decide what they think.”
Williams of Belmont Abbey says, “When I taught politics, one of the proudest things I did was to teach in a way that people couldn’t tell which side I fell on. It’s just gotten harder to do it but it can still be a goal.”
At Davidson, “The Deliberative Citizenship Initiative” encourages students to debate their views on topics such as abortion, the civil rights movement and current political insurgencies.“We’re trying to encourage and understand the views of others, without seeing them as deadly enemies who must be silenced,” says Aldridge.
Buchenau of UNC Charlotte says the controversy over politics influencing history hasn’t changed the way he teaches the subject. “I think it has emboldened some parents and their children to basically try to get me to not teach some of the things that I do, particularly about race, class, and gender. But I try to not let that bother me. I try to give students the best-rounded experience that I can.”
“Our universities are the envy of the world because they’re independent. There are a lot of countries where the universities are not free, including countries we study,” Buchenau adds. “I just show students what happened when there was censorship and political interference…. I’m a history professor. I don’t talk so much about current events, but I talk about other times and other places and then let the students draw their own conclusions.”
Palmer Magri and Sam Carnes are students in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of community news.