Study of American Democracy on Cal State Chopping Block

Faculty proposal would split a U.S. history and ideals required sequence across the CSU system. Historians aren't happy with the idea.

February 27, 2019
 
Signing of Declaration of Independence

Historians across the California State University System are voicing concerns about a new general education task force report that recommends halving the six-credit U.S. history and government requirement in place on most campuses.

The university system says it hasn’t even formally received the faculty-led report yet and that it remains a mere set of ideas.

Still, some professors worry that Cal State’s six-credit requirement has long been a target for those who see it as a barrier to completion.

“Students here do a lot of work in U.S. history and government -- it’s a rigorous course of study, and we stand to lose that right now,” said Bridget Ford, professor of history at Cal State’s East Bay campus and a critic of the general education task force report. “We’re worried about what democracy in our state will look like without it.”

Cal State's 23 campuses enroll hundreds of thousands of students, many of whom are first-generation college students and Americans. And California Civil Code requires that Cal State students "acquire knowledge and skills that will help them to comprehend the workings of American democracy and of the society in which they live," to "enable them to contribute to that society as responsible and constructive citizens."

Each campus must therefore provide for "comprehensive study of American history and American government," including the historical development of American institutions and ideals, the U.S. Constitution and representative government, and state and local government. California's community colleges, which enroll some 2 million students, follow the same model for transfer purposes.

Within the Cal State system, this legal requirement has been controlled, in part, by the long-standing Executive Order 405, which was superseded by Executive Order 1061 in 2011. Any course on U.S. history and ideals is supposed to cover 100 years or more, the role of social and ethnic groups in major events, and the interplay of politics, economics, social movements and geography. Any course on the U.S. Constitution must cover framers' political philosophies "and the nature and operation of U.S. political institutions and processes under that Constitution as amended and interpreted," and more.

The system order doesn’t specify a number of required credits. But because it’s widely seen as difficult to impossible to address all three goals within a single course, most campuses require a two-course, or six-credit, American democracy sequence. Sometimes it’s integrated into the general education program, and sometimes it’s a freestanding requirement.

The task force, established by the systemwide Academic Senate two years ago to review general education across campuses, would change that. Its report, released after faculty members demanded transparency from the task force via open-records requests, says it acknowledges the system’s dedication to the American democracy requirement. But it notes inconsistencies across campuses, such as that some “double count” this course work.

Therefore, the new report says, American democracy is a “cross-cutting” idea that should be formally integrated into a new general education program as a three-unit "core value.” The report otherwise seeks to streamline and make more coherent general education requirements.

"Student perceptions of the purpose and value of their [general education] courses hopefully will shift from a checklist of disparate categories of courses needed for the diploma to a meaningful learning journey that empowers them to become independent thinkers and educated citizens of the global community, able to transform their learning into meaningful action," the task force wrote.

Andrew Wiese, chair of history at San Diego State University and another vocal critic of the task force report, said that the American democracy requirement can be traced back not only to CSU’s founding documents from the 1960s but to World War II-era guidelines for state teachers' colleges.

Noting that a popular world history pathway through his campus’s general education program disappeared when the Cal State system ordered a streamlining of general education via Executive Order 1100 in 2017, Wiese said the study of U.S. history -- not just the scope of American democracy study -- now appears to be at risk. 

“If some historians are upset with this new report, they’re not upset as historians. They’re upset as citizens committed to preparing students for this complex project of democracy in California," he said.

Beyond the question of U.S. history and ideals, in particular, Wiese also said there is "this larger question of whether we should be reducing the requirements we ask of students. My view is that there are some requirements that are essential, some requirements that are important enough to maintain at all costs.”

Critics of the faculty-led task force say that it included a small number of system staff and board members, and therefore minutes for its approximately 20 meetings over two years should be part of the public record. Currently they are not. Professors want to know how much the university system’s ambitious Graduation Initiative 2025, which seeks to increase the freshman four-year graduation rate to 40 percent from the current 25 percent, influenced discussions, for example. Two history professors from Cal State's Fullerton campus have said that they attempted to attend a Feb. 1 meeting of the task force and were not admitted.

On Tuesday, the Academic Senate at Cal State's Stanislaus campus passed a resolution rejecting the task force's work as "illegitimate" and an "infringement on both faculty curricular authority and the spirit of shared governance." The resolution, which is being referred to other campus faculty bodies, says that the task force operated "largely behind closed doors," and didn't sufficiently involve experts in the disciplines most affected.

Task force co-chair Jodie Ullman, professor of psychology at Cal State’s San Bernadino campus, said via email that the report “serves only as a beginning step and launching-off point in a lengthy, thoughtful process of consultation, deliberation and review.” (Note: An earlier version of this article misidentified Ullman's campus.)

She referred questions to the system's Academic Senate, whose chair did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mike Uhlenkamp, Cal State spokesperson, said other executive orders have nothing to do with the current faculty-led review of general education. The system did not convene the task force. Rather, he said, the system's Academic Senate "just wanted to take a look at this." 

At this point, Uhlenkamp added, the task force has not formally referred the recommendations to the system.

Ford said there are no data to suggest that history and political science courses prevent students from graduating, and that the skills gained in these courses arguably help students reach graduation. This is not the first time that the six-credit U.S. history and democracy requirement has come under fire, however. In 2015, the Sacramento State campus said it would allow a three-credit anthropology course on cultural diversity to stand in for a two-course U.S. history and government sequence. Arguments against the change echo criticism of the task force's current recommendations. 

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