A decade ago, Senator Robert Byrd spearheaded the designation of September 17th as Constitution Day. The holiday commemorates the momentous day in 1787 when 39 delegates in Philadelphia signed the Constitution. Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, added an amendment to an omnibus spending bill, mandating that all publicly funded educational institutions provide programming to improve knowledge of the Constitution.
Was Senator Byrd’s initiative unnecessary? Do college students really need training about the Constitution?
The higher education community doesn’t seem to think so. From the beginning, they complained—oddly, to be sure—that the requirement interfered with their academic freedom. Just this year they renewed that opposition, calling on Congress to eliminate the Constitution Day teaching requirement as undue interference in universities’ business.
So to repeat: Do college students really need training about the Constitution? Sadly, the answer is a resounding yes.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s (ACTA) annual report, “What Will They Learn?” shows the root cause of these alarming findings. Out of 1,100 universities studied during the 20142015 academic year, only 18.3% of those schools required even a single foundational course in American government or history.
Instead of ensuring students have a basic foundation, too many colleges—and, yes, public institutions funded by taxpayer dollars—allow undergraduates to skip American history or government altogether or replace them with a narrow substitute. At the University of CaliforniaBerkeley, the U.S. history requirement can be replaced with “Dutch Culture and Society: Amsterdam and Berkeley in the Sixties” and at the University of Colorado, it can be replaced with “America through Baseball” or “Horror Films and American Culture.” Even students who major in history at prestigious institutions like Amherst, Bowdoin, and Bates can often avoid American history entirely.
While it is no doubt true that something can be learned from specialized classes, they should not be a replacement for an American history course or for knowledge about America’s founding documents. Colleges and universities—and most especially their trustees—surely have an obligation to students, citizens, and taxpayers to ensure that our country’s future leaders have a basic understanding of the Constitution and of U.S. history. That’s why ACTA is writing to more than 19,000 trustees this year, outlining how colleges and universities are largely AWOL in their duty to prepare informed and effective citizens, and urging them to do better.
• Molly Mitchell is Director of Communications of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent nonprofit dedicated to academic excellence, academic freedom, and accountability in American higher education. www.goacta.org.
Editor’s Note: To find out whether your alma mater requires American history or government and how your alma mater ranks, go to https://whatwilltheylearn.com/disciplines/history