History-less judgments

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Protesters march through the University of California at Berkeley campus in Berkeley, California December 10, 2014.  Photo courtesy REUTERS/Noah Berger

Protesters march through the University of California at Berkeley campus in Berkeley, California December 10, 2014. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Noah Berger

By MARTIN E. MARTY   August 8, 2016
Paul Tillich’s “religion is the soul of culture and culture is the form of religion” is not the only thing to say on the subject(s), but it is a provocative inspiration to those who reflect on and who write about each. Let me follow that inspiration this week and look back to and in on my calling, which for me ended professionally eighteen years ago, but which never leaves one. It’s a bit of a stretch to link a new report on “No U.S. History?”, which does not mention religion, with a concern about religion and commenting on “religion in public life,” the assignment of Sightings. The document was prepared by and arrived from ACTA (www.goACTA.org), The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, to jolt academic humanists, historians, and others to take seriously the absence of U.S. history from curricular requirements of (by far, most) history departments in college and university history curricula.

Those of us appalled and unnerved by evidences of multi-partisan chaos in American political life insofar as it relates to history have reason to care, also about what it means for religion-in-culture. Making sense of the American founding and most key developments since, without understanding anything about the role of religion, narrowly or broadly defined, is urgent; ACTA staff provide careful analysis and evidence of the history-less loss of perspective and wisdom in dealing with the three branches of government and their analogs on all levels.

Most historians we meet complain about the lack of knowledge about the basics of civic life, which is always a reflection of past events and concerns. So how do the higher education establishments deal with all this? Rather than preach, let me mention some ACTA findings. Of the 75 (total) liberal arts colleges, national universities, and public institutions surveyed, only 25 require any U.S. history. Only five of the top 25 colleges, two of the top 25 national universities, and six of the top public institutions, require any U.S. history in their history curricula. Why they don’t bother with the U.S. when they offer history courses is a complex issue which we can’t go into here.

Now, most curricula do not offer broad civic-minded history courses of the sort which high schools used to offer, as few do now. And when they do require U.S. history, they offer non-broad, non-basic courses. ACTA cites these samples: ”Soccer and History in Latin America: Making the Beautiful Game” (Williams College), “Modern Addiction: Cigarette Smoking in the 20th Century” (Swarthmore College), “Lawn Boy Meets Valley Girl: (Bowdoin College), “Mad Men and Mad Women” (Middlebury College), “Hip-Hop, Politics and Youth Culture in America” (University of Connecticut). These credit-worthy subjects are not without some significance, but what does this limited set of practices leave the nation with? More of the ACTA survey:

“Less than 20% [of history majors] could identify–in a multiple choice survey—the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.” “One-third of college graduates were unaware that FDR introduced the New Deal.” “Over one-third of the college graduates could not place the American Civil war in its correct 20-year time frame.” “Nearly half of the college graduates could not identify correctly the term lengths of U.S. senators and representatives.” Yet these are the elites who become voters.

Shall we ask about the religious meanings of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and fundamental/decisive U. S. Supreme Court rulings? We shall not, being emotionally unready to cope with the probable answers. Now, back to election-year news …

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at  www.memarty.com.