A university literally named after George Washington and located in the nation’s capital just dropped its requirement for American history, for history majors. In order to graduate with a history degree from George Washington University (GW) in Washington, D.C., you do not have to study American history.
To make matters worse, the department said they made this stunning decision in order to kowtow to current trends and make history more popular. This change comes among other updates to the curriculum: history majors will no longer be required to take foreign language classes, can do an electronic capstone project instead of the traditional thesis, and will not have to study European, North American, or U.S. history.
“I think the main gain for students is that they have a great deal more flexibility than they had before, and they can adapt it to whatever their plans are for the future,” Katrin Schultheiss, chair of the history department, told The GW Hatchet. “Whatever they want to do, there’s a way to make the history department work for them.”
In 2016, GW implemented a new funding formula, allocating money to the various departments based on the number of students enrolled in that major’s classes. Each school receives $301 for every student in a class, incentivizing majors like history to offer classes that will be popular.
Indeed, enrollment in history has dropped since 2011, when there were 153 history majors. Only 72 undergraduate students majored in history in 2015, while 83 did so in 2016, the Hatchet reported.
Some of the updates make sense — while it is good to require students to study a foreign language, it might not be necessary for history. The electronic capstone might be less rigorous than a traditional thesis, but it would make sense to allow students to build a website focused on their concentration of history, for instance.
Dropping the U.S. or European history requirement is different in kind, and much less excusable. The new requirements still mandate at least one introductory course, of which American history, world history, and European civilization are options — as well as “Approaches to Women’s History.” Nevertheless, this introductory requirement may be fulfilled by scoring a 4 or a 5 on the Advanced Placement exams for U.S., European, or world history.
In addition to this one required introductory course (which may be satisfied by women’s studies), the major requires an introductory seminar, eight to ten upper-level history courses, and a thesis or capstone project. Before the changes, students had to take two courses focused on Europe and North America. Now, they can avoid them altogether.
“I think an important change in the history major has been to make our major actually reflect the field of history the way that historians study it now,” Denver Brunsman, an associate professor of history and director of undergraduate services for the department, told the Hatchet. “In the past — and I think our old standards reflected this — it was very common to have students take a class in American history, in European history and maybe, just maybe, something else, another part of the world.”
While a focus on other countries is laudable, it is important for students to understand their historical and intellectual heritage. If the history department were to become stiflingly closed to studying other regions of the world, that would indeed be a problem. But requiring a general knowledge of America’s roots (and those include Europe’s history) is natural and should be expected, especially of history majors.
Rather, this move seems to fit with the trend of rejecting the study of Western heritage as somehow oppressive and close-minded. Indeed, students at Yale University recently petitioned for the removal of a class because studying “Major English Poets” would create “a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.” Stanford University students rejected a petition for a Western heritage course in April. The University of Wisconsin-Stout even removed historical paintings because they might traumatize students.
In July, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) issued a report showing that less than one-third of highly ranked colleges and universities in America actually require students pursuing a degree in history to take a single course in American history. Only 23 undergraduate history programs at 75 colleges and universities in the study required a U.S. history course.
Even worse, many of the institutions that do not require a U.S. history course do actually mandate a class on areas outside the United States. Many allow very strange, highly specialized topics to substitute for such a class, such as “Soccer and History in Latin America: Making the Beautiful Game,” or “Modern Addiction: Cigarette Smoking in the 20th Century,” or “Lawn Boy Meets Valley Girl.”
Even among the schools requiring American history, 11 allow courses like “Hip-Hop, Politics, and Youth Culture in America” or “Mad Men and Mad Women” to satisfy the requirement.
“Historical illiteracy is the inevitable consequence of lax college requirements, and that ignorance leads to civic disempowerment,” declared Michael Poliakoff, then-president-elect of ACTA, upon the release of the study. “A democratic republic cannot thrive without well-informed citizens and leaders. Elite colleges and universities in particular let the nation down when the examples they set devalue the study of United States history.”
Indeed, American college students are painfully ignorant of American history. According to one study, between 60 and 70 percent of American college students could not name a country outside the United States which has had slavery. It appears that the unhealthy focus on the guilt of slavery in America has led many young people to think the United States invented slavery.
It is truly saddening to see a university named after George Washington devalue American history in this fashion, even if it follows the vast majority of elite schools.
Furthermore, as a history major myself, I would suggest that making the study of history less rigorous will actually detract from its appeal to students. One of the things that attracted me and my fellow students to history was its difficulty and the excellence of the professors. Had the requirements loosened, the major would likely have lost attractiveness, not gained more.
One of the major reasons the humanities in general are in decline is the widespread (and entirely incorrect) assumption that history, literature, and classical disciplines teach nothing valuable and are a joke. By no longer requiring history majors to study the past of their own country, schools like GW seem determined to double down on making the humanities seem pointless, and therefore even more unpopular.
I must agree with Thomas Long, an assistant professor at GW, who listed the three things a history major should be able to do: “You should know how we got where we are, you should be able to write and you should be able to think critically. If you graduate with those skills, you can really do anything.”
While Long supported the change, I would argue that removing an American history requirement makes it less likely graduates will “know how we got where we are,” and it also makes the major less attractive — not more.