NC - UNC Chapel Hill

UNC Chapel Hill students walk between classes on a muggy morning in 2018.

On Tuesday, controversy exploded at the University of North Carolina.

Over 600 faculty members signed a letter protesting recent proposals by the North Carolina Legislature and UNC’s governing boards, including a North Carolina House bill that would require UNC students to take a class on American history and civics in order to graduate. The class would focus on central texts from American history, including the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

What’s wrong with this proposed requirement? According to the professors who signed on to the letter, the prospective civics course constitutes an assault on “core principles of academic freedom” and “substitutes ideological force-feeding for the intellectual expertise of faculty.”

The signatories of this letter are sadly mistaken about the impact this legislation would have. Outside of the faculty lounge, few Americans would consider classes on the Bill of Rights or Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings “ideological force-feeding” or a violation of “core principles of academic freedom.”

Far from violating “freedom,” this course would allow students to consider for themselves the true meaning of the word. House Bill 96 would introduce the rising generation of North Carolinians to the civic principles and history that undergird American self-government.

The need for such an education in our public universities, not to mention our K-12 schools, is urgent. As the bonds of our shared democratic life are strained, Americans across the political spectrum are looking to our schools and universities to revive the teaching of American citizenship.

Across party lines, Americans overwhelmingly support more content-based civics in the classroom. A poll sponsored by the Jack Miller Center (of which I serve as president) late last year found that over 70% of parents believe that civics education should focus on the core principles of the American Founding.

The poll also found that most parents do not believe their children are getting enough civics education in high school. Making sure that America’s students understand our political tradition by the time they graduate college, then, should be a top priority for the higher education system. The proposed requirements in HB96 are exactly the kind of curriculum most Americans want to see more of. 

This makes the UNC professors’ letter all the more troubling, because it also denounces a proposal by the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees to create a new School of Civic Life and Leadership, with an accompanying legislative proposal for $4 million in startup funding. Such a school would likely resemble Arizona State University’s School for Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, which has now been in existence for several years, garnered bipartisan support and has set a powerful example of rigorous undergraduate study in democracy and the practice of civil discourse. 

Arizona State’s model had its origins in state legislation, as do emerging civics institutes in Tennessee, Texas and Florida. North Carolina stands to join a growing movement for the recovery of serious civic learning at the university level. 

The UNC professors’ argument against the center starts with a misunderstanding of a public university’s civic mission. According to the UNC professors, the proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership “constitutes a clear violation of the established principle that faculty, not politicians, are responsible for a college’s curriculum.” In the case of North Carolina, though, state policy specifically dedicates UNC “to the service of North Carolina and its people.” These institutes are designed to meet the needs of both.

The protesters’ letter suggests that UNC’s proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership will be a partisan institution, but nothing could be further from the truth. Civics education unites Americans around common knowledge of the nation’s core principles. The American political tradition is broad and inclusive. Voices from the left and the right can both identify with it – and voices from both sides should promote its teaching. 

North Carolina legislators and university trustees deserve credit for pushing to improve the state of civics in their universities. All states owe it to their students to introduce them to the intellectual foundations of constitutional democracy.

After all, our students should aspire to be more than workers and consumers. They should aspire to be good citizens. In a time when universities across the country are eliminating humanities course work, professors ought to be heartened that legislators are recognizing the crucial link between liberal education and civic health and taking steps to support it.

Hans Zeiger is the president of the Jack Miller Center, a nationwide network of scholars and teachers promoting the study of the American political tradition. Previously, he served in both houses of the Washington state Legislature.