The REACH Act Reminds Us Why We Teach American History

The time is perfect for setting a new standard and for revising the Carolina Core to teach the essentials of the United States and remind all students of the original vision and heritage of America.

It wasn’t too long ago that I was an undergrad student at the University of South Carolina. I remember the anxiety of picking classes and planning future semesters all too well. To ensure that each student is receiving a well rounded (i.e. liberal arts) education, the university established the “Carolina Core:” a mandated curriculum consisting of a certain amount of credit hours in ten different foundational components. Students are offered a variety of classes to choose from within these components, but the hours must be met before he or she can graduate. If I was going to graduate on time, I had to first confirm that the courses I was taking fulfilled the Carolina Core before moving on to the requirements of my major.

One of the components required in the Carolina Core is “Global Citizenship and Multicultural Understanding: Historical Thinking.” As the name suggests, this component requires three credit hours (one class) of a history – regardless of the kind. The available sixteen classes range from two sections of United States History to “Film and Media History” and “Science and Technology in World History.”

While students may elect to take the “United States History to 1865” course and thereby learn about the founding of America and study the Declaration, the Constitution and other foundational documents, they are not required to. The REACH (Reinforcing College Education on America’s Constitutional Heritage) Act aims to rectify this.

Reinforcing A Current Law

Currently, Section 59-29-120 of the South Carolina Code, requires that all state supported high schools and universities “give instruction in the essentials of the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers, including the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals” culminating in a final exam. As noted in an article published by Palmetto Family, the REACH Act isn’t actually attempting to create a new law, but simply updating (and “reinforcing”) this law that has been in place for 95 years. However, just because a law exists doesn’t mean it is always being followed.

As is well documented, Harris Pastides, current president of the University of South Carolina, called the law “archaic” in 2014 and said that the University would not abide by it.

It appears as if the main issue that Pastides had with the original law is the portion that states that a student must prove the “power of his loyalty” before graduating.

An examination of loyalty certainly sounds like a McCarthy-era scare tactic, especially when used as a prerequisite for graduating, but the overall intention of the bill is admirable. When Pastides first made this declaration in 2014, Jameson Broggi wisely noted in The Daily Signal that,

“If the university believes a loyalty provision is constitutionally suspect, as it no doubt is, all it has to do is require classes on the Constitution but not examine a student’s ‘loyalty.’ In standard legal practice, if a court believes part of a law is unconstitutional, it will sever the problematic portion if the remaining parts of the law remain operable.”

Instead, the Carolina Core remained unchanged and a course on US History remained optional.

The Importance of History

History classes have always been marginalized in both secondary schools and higher education. There are an enormous amount of young people who know little to nothing about the founding of the country they live in. In 2014, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that only eighteen percent of eighth graders were “proficient” in US History – a small increase since 2001, but no meaningful change since the test was administered previously in 2010. If students are illiterate in American History entering high school, it is unlikely that they will truly learn any more in college, especially since it is an optional course.

To be fair, it should be noted that a public outcry over a lack of historical knowledge is not new. In 2011, NPR published an article recording the numerous headlines regarding the fact that students have never been “proficient” in history. In the article, education historian Diane Ravitch says, “we’ve been lamenting the state of history since 1943 and maybe even longer.” Of course, this does not mean that there is no cause for concern. Even if there never was a time when students exemplified great knowledge of history, we shouldn’t stop emphasizing it. History, specifically the founding and evolution of our country, is important after all.

“The process of historical inquiry – and what it teaches students along the way – is history’s greatest reward.” Jason Seinhauer writes for TIME. “Studying history teaches that society is not stagnant. Studying history teaches us to question how and why things change, who drives those changes, whose interests are served by them and who gets left out of the equation. History teaches that human actions have consequences.”

Likewise, Ravitch argues that the learning of historical facts is not necessarily the purpose of teaching history. If American teens have never been very knowledgeable about history, we can’t let the teaching of this context go. It is the context and knowledge of historical precedent that is important. “That’s why we can’t just laugh it off and say, ‘We’ve never known anything about history, so let’s forget about it,’” Ravitch says, “We can’t forget about it.”

Time for a Change

As a student teacher obtaining a Master of Teaching, I can vouch for most educators when I say that we do not generally like being told what to do in our classrooms. Interference from those with no experience in the school system is frustrating; however, high schools have always followed this law, so there shouldn’t be much change here.

As a recent undergraduate, I can say with certainty that we like choice. Still, I believe a US History course that “does not add to the total number of credit hours for any degree” is immensely important and could be implemented without sacrificing choice for a second history course.

The REACH Act removes the problematic question of loyalty that a student must demonstrate, and simplifies the length of instruction from “one year” to a manageable “three credit hours” and a final exam for universities. Additionally, it will be possible to exempt from the credits if a student passes an AP or dual-credit course that satisfies the requirement.

With these provisions, there is hardly reason to be upset. US History will finally be given a place of importance in higher education. With Pastides leaving his role as president in late July, the time is perfect for setting a new standard and for revising the Carolina Core to teach the essentials of the United States and remind all students of the original vision and heritage of America.

William Outlaw