George Washington University’s History department has decided that taking a US history course to complete its major requirements is optional. While understandable as a way for students to specialize in an area of history, in the age of declining American civics, this move is alarming for future political discourse.
In his opinion of Brown v. Board of Education, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments…It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship.”
Learning US history is crucial to not only avoid repeating past mistakes, but also to enable a better future. For example, learning about Ronald Reagan can empower a voter to cast a ballot for a candidate who believes in “peace through strength,” lower taxes, and limited government. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
Additionally, learning US history is crucial to understanding today’s system of government. According to a 2014 study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, 31 percent of Americans could name all three branches of the US government, while 32 percent were unable to identify even one. Shockingly, almost one in 10 Americans believe the Bill of Rights includes the right to own a pet (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t).
“With the U.S. government now larger and more complex than ever, it takes deeper understanding to keep trying to shape it into one that works for all people, not just some of them,” the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss wrote last September. “That means that instead of needing fewer people who can name a branch of government, we need more who actually understand the history of the U.S. government and how it functions so that citizens can properly exercise their most important civic responsibility: voting.”
Altogether, why would GWU not require students to learn about its namesake? According to a statement by the university, “All history majors earn a B.A. in History. Students can choose to specialize in the history of a particular region, including the U.S., or in a time period, topic or a combination of these focus areas.”
In an interview with Red Alert Politics, alumnus Gary Holtzman — who received a master’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus on social studies — said, “We do a disservice to undergraduates if we have them specialize too narrowly too soon. Even down to the level of high school AP courses, we are seeing the old saying about experts ‘knowing more and more about less and less’ kicking in too soon.”
Holtzman added, “Without a broad foundation, students will not be able to make the connections between regions and time periods that are crucial to a sophisticated understanding of history.”
Aside from the amount of homework and tests, requiring students to take at least one US history course should not be a chore. In a society that flunks basic civic awareness, not mandating education that can remedy a growing issue will only make the next generation culpable.
While learning about history in general is vital for a functional and informed society, teaching the past of this country can cause students to realize that, from the Founding Fathers to today’s leaders, Americans sacrificed blood and sweat to maintain our freedom and liberty. Not all countries value education. To ignore US history would be an injustice and a disgrace to our ancestors and future leaders.
Disclosure: The author minored in History at GW, completing the program requirements last summer.