‘Mr. Gettysburg? I don’t know him.’ History, civics could be made mandatory at NC colleges

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

North Carolina lawmakers are citing the public’s lack of knowledge of civics and history for new legislation requiring students to pass those classes to get degrees from the UNC System or community colleges.

The state House Community Colleges Committee backed legislation Thursday requiring completion of at least three credit hours of instruction in American history or American government to get a bachelor’s degree from the UNC System or an associate’s degree from a community college.

Rep. Keith Kidwell, one of the primary sponsors of House Bill 96, warned that “we will not continue as a country” unless students know more about U.S. history and civics.

“When I asked a young person at the polls one day what the Gettysburg Address was and he said, ‘Who’s Mr. Gettysburg? I don’t know him,’” said Kidwell, a Beaufort County Republican. “OK, that’s concerning.

“You ask people, ‘Who did we fight the War of Independence against?’ You get Canada, Germany. They don’t know, and these are high school students.”

Similar legislation has been adopted in other states, including South Carolina. It’s backed by conservative groups such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

The bill comes after state lawmakers passed legislation in 2019 that resulted in high school students taking one fewer U.S. history class. The State Board of Education had to drop one of two previously required U.S. history courses to fit in a new personal finance course mandated by legislators.

Required documents

Under the NC REACH Act, college students seeking degrees would be required to take courses that have them read:

The U.S. Constitution.

The Declaration of Independence.

The Emancipation Proclamation.

At least five essays from The Federalist Papers, as determined by the instructor.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

The Gettysburg Address.

Rep. Jon Hardister, a Guilford County Republican, said knowledge of those documents will allow people to engage more constructively on political issues.

Students could be exempted from taking the new requirement if they meet requirements such as having passed Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams in those subjects.

Punishment if not implemented

The new requirements would go into effect for the 2023-24 school year. The legislation warns that failure to implement the new degree requirements could result in the removal of university chancellors and community college presidents.

“I just think it’s too much to put in this bill such a threat that if you don’t offer this you will be fired,” said Rep. James Roberson, a Wake County Democrat.

Kidwell said it was added because of how some things in other education laws have not been implemented.

“I’m a big fan of putting a little teeth in the law,” said Kidwell, who added that his local community college president backs the bill.

Hardister, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said it’s highly unlikely that presidents and chancellors will not adhere to the requirements. But he said it’s a way of avoiding using legal action if the requirements aren’t met.

Judge Judy on the Supreme Court?

During the committee meeting, multiple lawmakers and community members spoke for the legislation.

Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, told lawmakers that courses already exist to meet the new legislation’s requirements. She said all that needs to be done is to require students to take those courses.

John Rustin, president of the N.C. Family Policy Council, said it will be a good thing for college students to continue to follow up on the civics and history courses they had taken in high school.

“America will not continue to flourish as a free society without a citizenry that is grounded in these founding documents and the principles they espouse,” Rustin said.

Hardister pointed to how man-on-the-street interviews by Comedy Central, CNN and Fox News show people not knowing the branches of government or thinking that Judge Judy is on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I would speak with constituents, and I could tell that there’s a lot of of them that are highly educated but there are some who are just not on basic civics,” Hardister said. “We want to have citizens who can engage, regardless of their political persuasions.”