Imagine that you are in college, and that you have registered for a survey course you think will be particularly interesting. Based on the course description and preliminary syllabus, you conclude that, although your knowledge level is lacking in the course’s field, it seems that the course takes that into account and that you should be fine.
Finally, imagine that you were wrong. You are in over your head. You simply don’t know enough. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
I’m sure that we’ve all been in situations like this at one point or another, whether in college or not. You take on a task for which you feel prepared, or at least able, and then the whole thing turns out to be a non-starter. I happen to have been in the exact situation outlined above. But here’s the scary part: this was a history based government course. I was a junior in the Government Department. And I found my knowledge of history lacking.
It would have been one thing if I were a freshman. Lack of knowledge at that level is expected. During sophomore year it is made fun of. But the third year? That is supposed to be the point in an undergraduate’s career when their hand finally steadies at the helm. The oceans of knowledge are not as threatening, and a course forward can begin to be charted. Instead, I found like fifteen leaks all over the place. And then the ship pitched sideways. Metaphor over.
This particular class, for me, was entitled “The Early Development of American Political Institutions and Organization,” and it was a junior level research seminar in the Government Department of Harvard University. The first day of class, I immediately noticed that I would have to learn a lot of new information to stay abreast of the material and classroom discussion. Before I could even complete the required readings, which were complex overviews and analyses of American history, I had to do swaths of background reading at a much lower level. This was just to give my coursework a context. Imagine trying to think seriously about the development of the Democratic Party (which we had to do), but with little idea of the history of Andrew Jackson or the United States at that particular time (which is what I had). Tough sell, right?
The scary part is that I suspect most of my fellow classmates were caught by surprise just as much as I was. I wasn’t surprised by the difficulty of the course material or the amount of it. I was surprised that I didn’t have the proper antecedent knowledge to engage it at a high level. I’d like to stress here, again, that I was a junior at this time. There was no excuse for this dearth.
This part of the story has an OK ending. I stayed with the class, didn’t speak as much as I normally would, and tore through a lot of extra reading in addition to the classroom materials. I finished with a B. (Despite what some of you may have read about grade inflation, that grade was not an easy task.) I learned a lot about the early history of the United States, but more importantly I learned that my knowledge of history in general was greatly lacking. Even though I had very good knowledge of modern events, history is a subject that is only fully valuable when you have a grand scope. That’s kind of the point of the field.
Fast forward to the second semester of my junior year. Armed with the knowledge that I didn’t know anything (or enough to matter), I decided to start at the Founding, the very beginning. I’m told it’s a very good place to start. I poured through the course catalog in an attempt to find survey courses on American history (American History 101, or something). When I didn’t immediately succeed, my eyes narrowed a little as I stared at my computer screen. After I changed my search terms and tried again, I was still unsuccessful. The best I could find were courses like ““History 13a: The European Enlightenment.” What good are courses like that if one doesn’t know basic European history? At this point I was distressed: I didn’t know history, and there seemed to be no courses to help me. At Harvard. What. The. Hell. In one last attempt, powered by rage at what seemed to me to be a ridiculous oversight, I changed my search parameters and dove back in. Eventually, and to my stunned relief, I found one! It was a course on the American founding, which covered colonial American history on through to the construction of the Constitution. Ironically, the course wasn’t even in the History Department, but the Government Department. It was entitled “Political Thought of the American Founding,” and it was taught by Professor Eric Nelson.
This is the part where my story begins to look up, and the light is visible at the end of the tunnel. Not only had Professor Nelson noticed the lack of a course on the Revolution, but he stepped in to supply the need. In an interview with the The Harvard Gazette, he says:
“A group of undergraduates came to my office hours in 2008 to complain that there was no course at Harvard on the American Revolution. My initial response was: “Look harder!” But it turned out that they were right. This seemed unfortunate to me, not least because my office is about 400 yards away from the spot where Washington mustered the Continental Army in July 1775.”
His course was easily one of my favorites, if not the favorite, of my undergraduate career. It provided a large amount of information and grounded it systemically with essential background knowledge. As a student, I could tell he was passionate about his subject. In fact, he’s written a book about it. After I had completed it, I felt confident in my knowledge of the American Founding, and prepared to tackle the rest of American history. But important questions remain: why was I ever in the position that I was at the beginning of my junior year, and where are all of the history courses like Professor Nelson’s?
NO HISTORY IN OUR COLLEGES
This lack of history may seem unsurprising to some, and it certainly was to me. But it’s not new news. On Wednesday, October 15, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni released its 2014-2015 What Will They Learn? study. The survey gives American liberal arts colleges a grade from A-F, which is determined by the material they require their undergraduates to cover. According to their press release, this material consists “…of seven subjects that are essential to a liberal arts education: literature, composition, economics, math, intermediate level foreign language, science, and American government/history.” Here is the criterion for a satisfactory mark for U.S. Government or History:
“What Will They Learn?TM gives schools credit for U.S. Government or History if they require a survey course in either U.S. government or history with enough chronological and/or topical breadth to expose students to the sweep of American history and institutions. Narrow, niche courses do not count for the requirement, nor do courses that only focus on a limited chronological period or a specific state or region” (page ten of the study).
Not only does Harvard not require a survey course in American history as a condition of a bachelor’s degree (check here for degree requirements), but it doesn’t even have that many. Evidence: the lack of a course on the American Revolution, until just recently. Additionally, many of its courses are “Narrow, niche courses.” This general trend in history was lamented the day after ACTA released its study in an article co-authored by a Harvard professor.
According to ACTA, only 28% of public institutions require American history. This may seem bad, and it is. But it is almost treble the 10% of private institutions that require it. According to the ACTA report, Harvard gets a D across the board, and one of the reasons for this is that it doesn’t require survey courses on American history (see page 63 of the report).
WHY HISTORY IS IMPORTANT FOR LIBERTY
As an advocate for liberty, I’m troubled that history doesn’t seem to be being transmitted to my generation. It’s important for a lot of reasons, and one of them is keeping everybody (read: the State) honest. If one can examine history and pull out trends, one can extrapolate into the future. If the State says that a policy is necessary, one can see if it’s been tried before and to what end. And maybe someone can also remember if we’re at war with Eurasia or Eastasia…I can’t remember.
Here’s an example of the importance of history played out: If historical knowledge were more prevalent, I think it would have produced more comparisons between the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, and maybe enough to have stopped the latter. Both were passed days after a national shock (some more real than others), and granted sweeping and vague powers to the executive. Although the circumstances were not the same, a pause for rational thought was in order both times, especially to contemplate the powers Congress was granting the president. A comparison between the two could have saved the US two long and costly wars, which not only shackled future generations to a mountain of debt, but gave birth to the Patriot Act.
On the other end of the scale, I also had this same need of history in my day to day life as a college student (and, unfortunately, still after). Not only does the State need to be kept honest, but its myths need to be busted. One that I heard and continue to hear from my fellow citizens is that “FDR led us out of the Great Depression with his social welfare programs and is our greatest president!” There are two arguments being made there. One is about the efficacy of state welfare programs (and why we must have them), and the other is about FDR’s legacy. History gives abundant evidence to properly evaluate these facts, but I find that a lot of them are either forgotten or glossed over.
As to the historical (and economic) analyses of his welfare programs, one could begin with Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. It was provoked by FDR’s New Deal. It itself was based on an essay by Bastiat commenting on a situation almost a century prior in France. These types of programs are not new, but the State always seems to be saying that they are. History can keep them honest. Concerning FDR’s legacy as a good president, I offer this jumping off point: the forced and involuntary internment of Japanese-Americans.
Broadly, a knowledge of American history encourages suspicion toward the State. A lack of historical knowledge leads to a very misplaced trust. Here are some more quick examples before I close:
- The government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition (which, by the way, was acknowledged not to work in the most epic form of a Constitutional repeal. Why, then, haven’t we done that for other drugs? History, people.)
- The government required discrimination, in the form of Jim Crow.
- This list could go on forever, so here’s one that’s current: the CDC completely mishandling Ebola.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I have offered my personal experience as a case study to show that history is not being taught, or at least not being taught properly, in our nation’s colleges. If one is concerned for the well-being of liberty, one must be concerned for the well-being of history. In its What Will They Learn? study, ACTA says that
“Higher education in a free society also has a civic purpose. Colleges and universities must ensure that students have a working knowledge of the history and governing institutions of their country. An understanding of American history and government is indispensable for the formation of responsible citizens and for the preservation of free institutions” (emphasis added, from page ten of their report).
Colleges need to step up their game, and so do all Americans. I don’t like poison in my alcohol.