History professor Ralph Young can’t forget the time Jay Leno went to Beverly Hills.
“He was asking people when women got the right to vote in America,” Young recalled. “These women in their fur coats and expensive cars – none of them knew the answers. At the end, the last woman got it correctly. And she was an Australian tourist.”
With Beverly Hills in mind, Young wasn’t surprised by a recent report issued by the International Studies Institute and the University of Connecticut. ISI researchers gave 50 colleges and universities a multiple-choice exam on American history, government, international relations and market economy – and not a single school scored higher than a “D.” In the report called Failing Our Students, Failing America, the ISI concluded that universities are failing to teach students to be active and educated citizens.
The institute is concerned with the replacement of traditional American history courses with nontraditional classes. For Richard Brake, director of the ISI’s Lehrman Studies Center and a former American government professor at Temple, the history survey course should come first.
“We all bear responsibility at the voting booth, so that kind of information is particularly important,” Brake said. “What that means sometimes is that if you’re going to emphasize something, you’re going to deemphasize others.”
Brake said that colleges should require three courses in American government, economics and history as they did before the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“What’s happened is that you’ve seen gender studies and race studies proliferate,” he said. “Those I think would be good for more advanced courses. But before you get to those points, you need to have more courses on the basics.”
But the popularity of such courses among students may be questio nable.
“I think it’s a good idea,” senior art history major Cynthia Escobedo said. “Would I want to take the course? Probably not.”
Some students, like freshman business major Brendan Barbagallo, said history is in the curriculum if you need it. Others were unsure of the role history courses should play in various degrees.
“I don’t think students get enough of history, especially in the current situation we’re in,” said freshman history major Sam Lavendier. “But I feel like a lot of people complain about having to take classes that have nothing to do with your major. Maybe it should be required for the College of Liberal Arts.”
History professor David Waldstreicher said that due to the American value on individualism, it’s nearly impossible to require students to take the same courses.
“Students want options,” he said. “They want to be informed and entertained. And to be entertained means not taking the same basic things they learned in high school.”
But Brake doesn’t want to give students the final say in course choices. He argued that students may not respect certain kinds of knowledge within the university.
“These are the adults, right?” Brake said. “They should have more of an opinion and more of a say than you do. Otherwise, why go to college? Why spend all this money?”
American studies professor William Cutler said that by adding new disciplines to the university, the knowledge students must absorb has grown. That has increased the number of choices, but not without debate over which courses should and will be removed.
Temple’s “History of U.S. 1600-1877” courses have grown less popular over time, Civil War historian Gregory Urwin said. But that’s part of the university’s emphasis on more thematic courses, he said, like the United States at War course he teaches.
“I’m not training students to say which came first: the battle of Fort Sumter or Appomattox,” he said. “I’m training them to ask whether or not the military is the servant of American security policy or what the place of women in the military is. Taking a historical approach to these questions helps students arm themselves with political knowledge at the poll booth.”
Waldstreicher added that the thematic courses still attempt to broaden students’ knowledge.
“These courses are a rational response to the multiple approaches to knowledge and the realization that history and politics can’t be looked at just nationally,” he said.
Cutler said that the university’s job should be to help students apply that knowledge.
“In the world in which we live, we can always find facts,” he said. “Education doesn’t end there. Education helps people say, ‘Why is this important? What do you make of the fact that we’ve never had a black president or a woman president?’”
But professors have had to balance between teaching facts and critical thinking. When Brake taught American State and Local Government courses at Temple, he found that most of his students had never read the U.S. Constitution.
For these reasons, freshman tourism and hospitality major Liesse Garrison said a concentrated American history course could be useful.
“I did take a lot of history in high school, but I didn’t really pay attention,” Garrison said. “Now I feel bad about it because I didn’t really learn much.”
Still, professors like Cutler said that deciding what historical knowledge to emphasize and condense into a multiple-choice exam is futile.
“What would you have on this test?” Cutler asked. “Would students have to know about Betsy Ross or Sojourner Truth? What constitutes knowledge?”
Cutler added that the lack of coordination between college, high school and elementary school teachers has led to different levels of student proficiency – the problem doesn’t originate in the college classroom.
Like undeclared sophomore Scott Wiggins, some students were reluctant to place the burden of civic education on the university.
“We should be discussing voting in middle schools,” Wiggins said. “Enforcing voting only when we’re able to vote seems irresponsible. You don’t get your license and then learn how to drive.”
Mel McKrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.