© 2024 WHRO Public Media
5200 Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk VA 23508
757.889.9400 | info@whro.org
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New ‘American Democracy’ requirement could change how college students in North Carolina learn history

A tour of prospective students walk to the Mary Francis Stone Building on campus at the University of North Carolina Greensboro campus Friday, Jan. 27, 2023 in Greensboro, N.C. (Photo by Lynn Hey for WUNC)
A tour of prospective students walk to the Mary Francis Stone Building on campus at the University of North Carolina Greensboro campus Friday, Jan. 27, 2023 in Greensboro, N.C. (Photo by Lynn Hey for WUNC)

A vote this week could change how tens of thousands of college students learn about history in North Carolina.

The UNC Board of Governors, which oversees all 16 of the state’s public universities, is likely to approve adding a new  “Foundations of American Democracy” learning requirement to its student success policy.

This story was reported and written by WUNC

To graduate, college students will need to take at least one course covering the founding of America as an independent nation, how the government functions and the “nation’s ideals.”

The material can be taught in a standalone class or interwoven into existing courses. It will be broken up into two “student learning outcomes” or SLOs.

The first SLO will require students to learn about the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and a “representative selection” of the Federalist Papers. The second will include documents like the Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

These historical texts are already covered by most high schools in North Carolina, but UNC System President Peter Hans said some of that instruction isn’t enough exposure to the founding principles of the nation.

“Students from less resourced high schools, with fewer advanced courses or electives, are less likely to get the civic knowledge they need,”  Hans said at a January Board of Governors meeting. “For the sake of fundamental fairness, our public universities should offer a college-level encounter with the tenets of American democracy.”

The policy was developed by a cross-university group of faculty, with representatives from Elizabeth City State, NC Central, UNC Asheville, UNC Greensboro and UNC-Chapel Hill.

Wade Maki is the leader of the group and representative for UNC Greensboro. He’s also head of the UNC System’s Faculty Assembly.

He said a “decline in civic literacy” among college students wasn’t the only nor most pressing reason the requirement was created.

Last year, the General Assembly considered a bill called the  Reclaiming College Education on America’s Constitutional Heritage (REACH). It would have required similar documents as the UNC System’s proposal, but with a mandate for students to take a full three-hour credit course on American government.

The REACH Act included additional punitive requirements, like mandating students to take a final exam accounting for 20% of their grade, and a section that allows the UNC Board of Governors to fire chancellors if they didn’t enforce the curriculum properly.

And although the bill  stalled in the Senate, it prompted strong reactions and motivated the creation of this new policy.

Kathleen DuVal, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said  she felt like it was unnecessary.

“I’ve taught here for 21 years and I haven’t seen a sort of decline in knowledge about American democracy the way some people say there’s been,” DuVal told WUNC. “I think it’s not uncommon for politicians to think that things are in decline and think that things are in crisis, but sometimes they aren’t.”

DuVal was one of about 700 faculty members who signed a  petition against the REACH act, saying that it was government overreach and  ”violated core principles of academic freedom.”

“We’re trying to teach history, and I think we do it in a really responsible way. In a balanced way,” DuVal said. “And it’s always a little scary if somebody who isn’t faculty wants to tell us within a class what we should be talking about.”

The REACH act follows a pattern of policymakers intervening in processes that are historically led by faculty. Another example at UNC-Chapel Hill is the Board of Trustees' creation of the new School of Civic Life and Leadership, which also  garnered significant criticism.

Almost always, curricular changes are brought about at the campus level by university faculty or department deans.

Maki said that while it is unusual for the UNC System to set curriculum requirements, it isn’t normal for the legislature to either.

“This is a pretty unique situation. We have seen a lot of legislators directly intervene (in creating curriculum) —  Florida is a classic example,” Maki said. “So for us, the idea of handling this internally was preferable than having a legislative intervention.”

Maki said the NC General Assembly’s proposal to have an entire course dedicated to American government would require “a radical restructuring of resources” most of the state’s universities don’t have and was something the UNC System “had to get out in front of.”

“We have 16 very different institutions. Some are large, some are small. We have HBCUs and we even have the UNC School of the Arts,” Maki said. “They need curriculum requirements that are flexible to enable each campus to deliver on them. Not everywhere has a history department or a political science department.”

UNC Pembroke’s Chancellor, Robin Cummings, was vocal in a Board of Governors meeting about how the requirement could impact his small school.

“As a chancellor of a university with limited resources, the devil is always in the implementation details,” Cummings said. “This is something that would be required of thousands of students … I am worried about the content, the implementation and certainly the cost to make it happen.”

Maki said there will be opportunities for larger institutions to create online courses that other universities in the System can access. He also said the SLO structure will allow professors to include additional historical perspectives.

“Let faculty build on other movements — indigenous experiences, women, LGBTQ+,” Maki said. “A whole host of things.”

DuVal, the history professor, said she is no longer against the proposal now that it has been rewritten by instructors and with looser requirements. However, she said faculty are concerned the UNC System directing curriculum can become a “slippery slope”

“I think that’s something that faculty and administrators will be watching to make sure that doesn’t become a sort of precedent,” DuVal said. “That people don’t point to this (and say) ‘Oh we did it this one time, now we could do it in a way that maybe really does tell us how we can teach something.'”

And throughout all of the curriculum changes and proposals, she said policymakers need to consider students’ wellbeing foremost.

“I hope administrators are really careful about not overloading students with requirements,” DuVal said. “I know for many of them, it’s already hard to get all their requirements in — some of the majors require a large number of classes already. So I hope that student stress and time to degree are both really central to how this is implemented.”

The full Board of Governors will vote on the policy revision on Thursday. If passed, the requirement would go into effect in 2025.