American History and Civic Education stand at a crossroads in California.
Recent actions by the California State University, the nation’s largest university system, threaten to erode History and civic education for millions of Californians, potentially diminishing the reputation of the CSU, weakening public trust in higher education, and imperiling our state’s future.
Last summer, a surprise Executive Order by CSU Chancellor, Timothy White, gutted the teaching of World History and Western Civilization for tens of thousands of CSU students. At a campus like San Diego State University, near the US-Mexico border, the order means that students will no longer be required, or even encouraged, to study the history of any place outside the US.
This week, the CSU rolled out a similar plan for American History.
Working behind closed doors and skirting open meeting laws for nearly two years, a CSU “task force on general education” has prepared a plan to eviscerate the state’s requirement in “American Institutions,” which has been the backbone of US history and civic education in California for almost 60 years. In short strokes, the proposal cuts the requirement for civic education by half and severs what’s left from the study of history. Imagine a course on Environmental Regulation as the substitute for U.S. History and Government. If the proposal is
implemented, no CSU students will be required to study the history of any nation, including their own.
The consequences of this radical disruption of the most rigorous and successful civic education program in California’s public institutions should not be underestimated. For six decades, CSU American Institutions coursework has been an unsung hero of our state’s complex democracy, evolving to meet the needs of each era, and providing millions of Californians with the tools to
function as effective citizens.
Rather than celebrate this achievement, CSU leaders characterize it as an obsolete chore for students and an obstacle to speedier bachelor’s degrees, without any data whatsoever backing such claims. But easing graduation by reducing requirements is a solution unfit for the world’s most creative economy and a threat to its democracy.
As in so many areas of American life, California has been a leader in civic education. The 1961 mandate of the CSU requires that campuses “provide for comprehensive study of United States history and government including the historical development of American institutions and ideals.” The goal of this “American Institutions” requirement “is to ensure that students acquire knowledge and skills that will… enable them to contribute to that society as responsible and constructive citizens.”
This is an especially fitting role for the CSU. Its twenty-three campuses deliver affordable access to higher education for nearly 500,000 students. One third are first generation college students. Nearly 5 percent are veterans. Half are students of color. They are Californians from every walk of life who have a dream to rise and contribute to their society.
Make no mistake, the erosion of “American Institutions” at the CSU will affect civic education statewide, including most immediately, the 2.1 million students in California Community Colleges whose curricula articulate with CSU mandates.
Today, more than ever, these students need college-level training in American history and democracy.
Across the CSU, History courses convey context, experience and practice in democracy. They offer training in building evidence-based arguments. They analyze the origins of the Constitution. They explain turning points in our path toward ‘a more perfect union,’ and they model it, for historical study resembles closely what we do as members of a deliberative democracy, which is to sort out valid statements from spurious claims, identifying credible evidence and acting upon it. In an age when the internet has changed how Americans know the
past, history provides students with the skills to discern what is true and false and to practice the consensus-building habits necessary to a diverse democracy.
CSU students value this training. San Jose State students report that their study of history “make[s] us all informed citizens.” In “learn[ing] to see current events with more curiosity and insight,” students enjoy a newfound ability “to reflect on what we can do to improve society.” At CSU East Bay, students describe a sense of empowerment: “I feel that I can confidently participate in debates about politics and current events with greater understanding now,” explains one undergraduate. A Fresno State student felt pride in studying the sacrifices Americans made for democracy: “It makes you see how far America has come and see what America has overcome, so it makes you more of a patriot.”
American history and civic education is important in another critical respect: students’ bottom line. American Institutions courses sharpen skills that employers demand in today’s marketplace:
communication, critical thinking, analysis, collaborative problem-solving, and more.
History and civic education remain as important to the mission of the California State University today as at our founding. These courses boost students’ success in college and the job market. They furnish perspectives and practice in effective citizenship that are the bedrock of democracy. In light of the challenges we face as a society, history has seldom mattered more.
Bridget Ford, Professor of History, CSU East Bay
Brad Jones, Professor of History, CSU Fresno
Andrew Wiese, Professor and Chair of History, San Diego State University
The writers are members of the Council on History and American Institutions, a coalition of CSU professors of history.