Should students at UNC System Schools and community colleges be required to take a course on history and government, irrespective of their majors? Should lawmakers be able to prescribe the curriculum for such a course, rather than campus leaders and faculty?
Those are a couple of the thorny questions sparked by House Bill 96, one of just a handful of higher-education related bills to make the General Assembly’s crossover deadline earlier this month, giving it a shot at becoming law.
“They say if you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” said State Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford), the House Majority Whip and a primary sponsor of the bill. “I think that’s true, and I think students are in a better position to understand what is happening in our country today and engage constructively about it if they fully understand our history — if they understand we’re not perfect, we have our flaws, but we’ve come a long way.”
Critics of the bill, among them prominent history professors, say understanding U.S. and N.C. history is vital, but the course described in the bill and the readings to be mandated will not give students much context for the sometimes-rocky history of our nation.
“It’s a very specific view of American history and state history,” said Dr. Jay Smith, history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. “You could look at it as a sort of ‘greatest hits,’ if you only want to talk about certain moments from the American history in a very specific way.
Even the acronym in the bill’s title, the “N.C. REACH Act” or “Reclaiming College Education on America’s Constitutional Heritage Act,” critics say, speaks to Republican lawmakers’ view that the curriculum at UNC System schools and the state’s community colleges needs to be “reclaimed” — in the name of a certain view of “heritage. “
But whose heritage and how is that represented?
Among other provisions, the bill would require students to read seven documents in their entirety:
- The Constitution of the United States of America,
- The Declaration of Independence,
- At least five essays from the Federalist Papers,
- The Emancipation Proclamation,
- The Gettysburg Address,
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and
- The North Carolina State Constitution.
“In history courses, we of course teach all of these documents,” said Dr. William Sturkey, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who specializes in the history of race in the American South. “But this bill illustrates one of the problems with the way we deal with history in this country. It jumps from the Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’”