History professors call the NC REACH Act (HB96) an ideologically driven pruning of U.S. history with token Black representation. (Photo: Clayton Henkel)
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.’”
That skips over the entire history of Black people in America in the 100 years between 1863 and 1963, Sturkey said — including essential context for how the modern Civil Rights movement came to be which would help students to actually understand King’s letter.
Without that, Sturkey said, the inclusion of a single document authored by a Black person seems to be token inclusion of some of the least controversial of King’s writings.
Hardister said it’s possible the list of required documents should be expanded, but said King’s letter “captures his endeavors to make society more just and to promote racial harmony.”
“It’s very poignant that he did that from inside a jail cell,” Hardister said. “So I thought that would resonate with people.”
But that kind of resonance — making people feel good about the country through its history by cherry-picking the most comforting and uplifting moments — gives a distorted view of our shared past, Sturkey said.
“I think in this day and age, the people that crafted the law were smart enough to realize you can’t only include documents produced by white people,” Sturkey said. “But they either cannot name a African American of any prominence before the year 1900 or they don’t want to use the documents produced by people like David Walker and Frederick Douglass, because those who run counter, at the time, to the Founding Fathers themselves.”
Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” or “Appeal” by North Carolina’s own David Walker would be better choices, Sturkey said. But those documents force us to confront the founders’ own definition of freedom, which did not include enslaved Black people.
Smith agreed. “To introduce the African American component of our history in 1963 with MLK is simply absurd,” Smith said. “You don’t necessarily have to agree with every word that Nikole Hannah-Jones has written in The 1619 Project to recognize that race is central to the American story, to American history. It needs to be present from the beginning — no matter where you began, whether it’s 1776 or 1492.”
Teaching the Gettysburg Address or the Emancipation Proclamation is good, Smith said. But if the goal is the equip students to deal with the governmental and societal challenges and confrontations of today through understanding their history, they are of limited value as there are few present-day controversies directly related to them.
Something like “The Cornerstone Speech” by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, on the other hand, would give insight into present day controversies over how we see the Confederacy as one of its leaders explicitly states that its aims were inherently racist, explaining the desire to counter to the idea that the races are equal.
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea,” Stephens wrote. “Its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
Leaving those sorts of documents out shows how narrow and ideologically driven the bill is, Smith said.
Government dictating history?
But even were the course described in the bill better, Smith said, there is problem of elected lawmakers prescribing what is taught rather than subject matter experts and the faculty who will actually do the teaching.
“Obviously, in sort of the abstract, there’s nothing wrong with a requirement that students know something about American history before they graduate,” Smith said. “But such a requirement should not be coming from the legislature. It should be coming from faculties at the respective institutions in the UNC system and community colleges. And this is simply because faculty are supposed to be in control of the curriculum; it’s been that way in this country for over a century. And that system has worked well for us. So why they would presume to dictate to us what we should teach, how we should teach it, and how we should evaluate performance in the class?”
Having government dictate how history is read, taught and interpreted is a dangerous path, he said.
An addition made to the bill as it moved through the committee process also raised eyebrows. Under the current version of the bill, if universities or community colleges don’t implement the required course, their chancellors can be fired.
“Unfortunately, there is not much else that we can do in terms of making sure there is compliance,” Hardister said.
That provision and others — including which documents are taught and why — are likely to see plenty more debate as the bill makes its way through the process of becoming law, Hardister said.
“I think it’s worth having those conversations,” he said. “This is a process and we want to hear different opinions, we are open to starting here and making it better. But we do think this prepares students to be citizens, to know their history and how their government works. That is the important thing.”
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