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March 8, 2013

American History X-perience

Though done to death in grade school, U.S. history deserves a more prominent place in college curricula.

United States history is a rather underappreciated subject. This might seem like an odd thing to say, given that students in this country typically spend a large amount of time studying it throughout elementary, middle, and high school. However, being required to study U.S. history isn’t the same as appreciating it, any more than filing your taxes every year is the same as considering it a hobby. Firstly, there’s always going to be a contingent of people who think history of any kind is a useless subject of study. You know, the people who make snide remarks about how they’re going to be pulling down a six-figure salary at an investment bank right after graduation while you subsist primarily on ramen because you didn’t study something “real” in college. Secondly, there are the people who like all history but that of the United States. This particular sentiment prevailed at the high school I attended, and I admit that I used to share it too. We supposedly had an “international model for global teaching and learning,” and—let’s face it—saying that you want to study United States history doesn’t make you sound very cosmopolitan when other people talk of their interest in Mayan civilization or the ancient Mediterranean. Chicago or Cairo? The Civil War or the Warring States period? Two hundred years of history, or two thousand? The latter things seem a little more exotic and mysterious, while the former seem like things you learn about in first grade.

My pipe dream is for colleges to place a greater emphasis on United States history in their general education requirements. I do realize that there are several very good arguments against doing so. General education requirements tend to be fairly onerous as they are, and I have yet to meet other students who would be thrilled by the prospect of more required classes. Furthermore, it might seem a little chauvinistic to require non-American students to become familiar with U.S. history when the rest of us are taught relatively little about the history of their countries unless we specialize in those regions.

But college-level work in U.S. history is useful because our study of it when we’re younger is rather shallow, and often taught in a manner that might turn away even enthusiastic learners of history. For example, I remember being required to memorize the preamble to the Constitution. Currently, I can recite it as far as “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union….” I suppose that, in the process, I gained an appreciation of how well written it was, but otherwise the assignment seemed pointless.

Moreover, I think we tend not to think too much about how the place and time in which we grew up affects how we learned about United States history. When I went to school in Chicago, names, places, and events relating to industrialization, immigration, and labor movements were emphasized—for example, Hull House, Louis Sullivan, the stockyards, and the Haymarket riots. Since these terms show up in standard American history textbooks (such as the one I used, American Pageant), I didn’t realize until college that they might seem obscure to people not from this area. Likewise, I’m sure that I don’t know as much as people who grew up in other regions about United States history pertaining to, say, agriculture. Though our educations up to this point have probably covered the same basic facts and interpretations of American history, the aspects of it that loom large in our minds and most heavily influence how we see our country will probably vary depending on where we went to school. Consequently, discussions about American history and historiography are especially well suited for a college setting that draws people from different regions and types of schools.

I was glad to see last week that recent American history was being discussed extensively in the media through coverage of the legal challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It might be a little tempting to treat history as a kind of temporal Las Vegas, where what happened in the past stays in the past. There are things that we take for granted because they seem so mundane, such as coed universities, basic workplace protections, or unadulterated food. However, to reclaim a much maligned phrase from last year, you didn’t build this. Millions of people did over the course of several hundred years. Though most of us are long past our last U.S. history class, we should still take time to think about historical context when we’re backing a cause or taking a stand against something. I’ve always believed that to make history, you should know history.

Jane Huang is a third-year in the College. 

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