KC Johnson

A while back, I wrote a series here at Minding the Campus on the transformation of U.S. history in higher education. In a virtually unprecedented development, the last 10-20 years have featured a conscious decision to restrict, rather than expand, the range of knowledge about U.S. history that college students would receive. Elite departments (and, since they train most Ph.D. degrees, through them other schools’ departments) have pushed the discipline to an overpowering emphasis on themes of race, class, and gender, while working to squeeze out such “traditional” fields as political, diplomatic, constitutional, and military. On top of that, many of these “traditional” fields have been “re-visioned” to orient themselves around themes of race, class, or gender, so that students’ only encounter to a diplomatic historian might be someone whose scholarship focuses on gendered language by U.S. policymakers or social activism by African-American groups in Memphis.

All that said, one important bulwark has existed to this contraction of historical knowledge: high school history curricula. Unlike the college curricula, in which trustees and administrators serve as the only viable checks and balances against the race/class/gender triumvirate, high school curricula is formed collaboratively—between state education administrators, faculty, and members of the public. These packages all ensure that students learn about themes of race, class, and gender, but also that they are exposed to presidencies, key military conflicts, court cases, and developments on U.S. foreign policy. As a result, sadly, high school U.S. history curricula tend to be far more diverse and comprehensive than what students encounter on most college campuses.

Technically, no relationship exists between high school and college history curricula. But practically, there’s a close connection: most states either require or encourage (through financial incentives) starting social studies teachers to obtain M.A. degrees in history. Colleges get more tuition money; the teachers get more knowledge to impart to their own students. But the expectation is that the student-teachers will experience courses that include material they use in school. An exclusive diet of race, class, and gender will not do.

AP Framework


KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.