In recent years the public has shown a keen interest in how American history is taught. We’ve seen efforts by state governments in Oklahoma, Texas, Indiana, North Carolina and other states to influence the U.S. history curriculum at taxpayer-funded schools and universities.
In 2012, then-GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum claimed that public universities in California had ceased teaching American history altogether. And the last time California State University, Sacramento, threatened to water down its U.S. history requirement, The Sacramento Bee editorial board penned a clear condemnation (“CSU Sacramento needs to make history a priority”; May 1, 2012).
Yet last month, a handful of Sacramento State administrators and like-minded faculty voted to approve a cultural anthropology course as a suitable substitute for a foundational American history general education requirement that has served CSUS students commendably for decades.
All of my colleagues among the historians at Sacramento State believe the subject matter of the new introductory “history” course fails to give students an adequate grasp of the significant events and personalities that have shaped U.S. history over the past 100 years, and violates the spirit of a California Code (Title 5, 40404), which establishes American history as a G.E. priority for CSU students.
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The new introductory “history” course leaves out, among other things, the Progressive Era, World War I, women’s suffrage, the Great Depression, FDR, the New Deal, World War II, McCarthyism, the Cold War, the Korean War, the nuclear arms race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the JFK assassination, Freedom Summer, the United Farm Workers Union, the Vietnam War, Stonewall, Watergate, Second Wave Feminism, the Iranian hostage crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War, globalization, the 9/11 attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Swapping an anthropology course for American history will leave our freshmen and sophomores little understanding of how American institutions have changed through time; how events such as World War I and II transmuted those institutions; and how the historical context altered the balance of power between the branches of the federal government and contributed to the rise of the United States as a global superpower.
For most Sacramento State students, this 15-week G.E. requirement will be the only American history class they’ll take in their lives. Many of our students are the first in their families to attend college, so it can’t be assumed they’ve been exposed to U.S. history at home.
When they arrive on campus, many of our freshmen and sophomores need some form of remedial education, which means we cannot assume that American history classes taken at the high school level were sufficient. Also, given the fact that many Sacramento State students come from immigrant families, these students might uniquely benefit from a foundation in their general education on the basics of U.S. history and civics.
In my classes I have had many students over the years who suspended their educations to go abroad and serve in the U.S. military, or who are combat veterans. These students deserve a public university that delivers a U.S. history requirement that doesn’t airbrush out the major wars of the 20th century.
Surveys consistently reveal Americans’ acute lack of fundamental historical knowledge, even among educated people. Voter turnout numbers for young people are dismally low. In the June primary, only 3.7 percent of California voters age 18 to 24 participated. This cluelessness and apathy speak to the crying need in this state for history and civics education.
All of these factors raise the question: What is the value educationally for our students in asserting that an anthropology course, taught by non-historians, that ignores major events that transformed the United States, can now fulfill the American history requirement?
This aggressive push to strip the professional historians at Sacramento State of influence over the introductory course in their own discipline has pitted departments against each other, lowered faculty morale and undercuts the reasoning behind paying higher salaries to people who hold Ph.D.s, only to have their expertise dismissed in favor of narrow administrative goals.
Surely there are other ways we can help students graduate quicker than gutting the American Institutions requirement. Hiring more full-time faculty, counseling staff, and scheduling more sections of so-called bottleneck courses would be a good first step. But substituting the American history G.E. requirement with Marxist anthropology is not a good idea.
CSUs are supposed to reflect the character and needs of their local communities. And given that Sacramento State is a public university located in the state capital, there at least should be a public debate about this wrong-headed move.
Joseph A. Palermo is a professor of history at California State University, Sacramento.