North Carolina Lawmakers Mandate American History Reading in Public Colleges


North Carolina lawmakers are pushing a bill that mandates undergraduate students in public universities and community colleges to read foundational American documents. Known as the Reclaiming College Education on America's Constitutional Heritage (REACH) Act, the bill has stirred significant debate over academic freedom and legislative interference in higher education.

North Carolina Lawmakers Mandate American History Reading in Public Colleges

(Photo : PEXELS / Brett Sayles)

The REACH Act's Provisions and Objectives

The REACH Act requires all students seeking bachelor's or associate's degrees to complete at least three credit hours in American history or government. This course must include comprehensive coverage of major events and turning points in American history. Unique to North Carolina, the Act specifies that students must read several key documents in their entirety: the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions, the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Additionally, students must read at least five essays from the Federalist Papers, chosen by their instructor.

The bill also mandates that at least 20% of students' final grades in these courses be based on an exam focusing on these documents' provisions, principles, authors' perspectives, and historical contexts. Failure to comply could result in the removal of university chancellors and presidents by the overseeing boards.

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Academic Freedom and Faculty Response

The REACH Act has faced strong opposition from faculty members who argue that it infringes on academic freedom. Nearly 700 faculty members from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill signed a letter objecting to the bill. They argue that the legislation "violates core principles of academic freedom" and replaces intellectual expertise with "ideological force-feeding."

Kathleen DuVal, a U.S. history professor at Chapel Hill, emphasized that most students have already learned about American foundational principles in high school. She argued that the bill undermines both students and educators, suggesting they are not capable of understanding or teaching these subjects adequately.

Despite the bill's intentions, faculty members highlight practical concerns. Wade Maki, chair of the statewide UNC Faculty Assembly, pointed out that mandating all bachelor's degree students to complete a comprehensive American history or government course would require universities to offer numerous additional class sections, posing a logistical challenge given their limited resources and faculty.

Legislative Intentions and Broader Implications

The REACH Act is part of a broader trend where state legislators seek to influence higher education curricula. Conservative groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) have been pivotal in promoting such legislation. Jameson Broggi, a U.S. Marine Corps judge advocate and advocate of the bill, argues that the Act ensures students gain a solid understanding of American civics, which he believes is currently lacking.

Broggi and ACTA previously succeeded in passing a similar REACH Act in South Carolina. They argue that when faculty fail to set adequate curriculum requirements, it falls to elected representatives to address these gaps. ACTA President Michael Poliakoff contends that this concern transcends political lines, emphasizing that understanding American history and government is crucial for all citizens.

The UNC System has attempted to preempt the REACH Act by passing a policy requiring students to study the same documents but with significant differences. The policy allows these documents to be included in various courses, not just a dedicated history or government course. Additionally, it does not mandate reading the documents in their entirety. This compromise aims to address legislative concerns without imposing the stringent requirements of the REACH Act.

Future of Higher Education Curriculum

The ongoing debate over the REACH Act raises important questions about the role of state legislatures in shaping higher education curricula. Faculty members like Jay Smith, president of the North Carolina Conference of the American Association of University Professors, warn against allowing lawmakers to influence academic content, viewing it as a slippery slope that could lead to further intrusions.

Supporters of the REACH Act argue that it addresses a critical need for comprehensive civics education, while opponents see it as a threat to academic autonomy. As the bill continues to be deliberated, its outcome could set a significant precedent for higher education across the United States.

The REACH Act's journey in North Carolina reflects a broader national conversation about education, governance, and the balance between state oversight and academic freedom. Whether the bill passes or not, it underscores the need for ongoing dialogue about how best to educate future generations about their nation's history and principles.

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