Any community’s history is important to its members and is often a foundational part of their identity. Today, some Americans notice their own communities’ shortcomings in teaching their youth our country’s history.
Tense race relations in the United States cause some to notice how many communities fail to teach their students a diverse history education and often ignore narratives of minority people that have lived in the U.S., such as indigenous people and people of color.
A circulating solution is to mandate certain curriculums to expand students’ awareness, but it ignores one of the biggest reasons why history education struggles across this country — a lack of funding.
Most people would likely respond to that statement with hesitancy, questioning how much more funding could history teachers really need? But often people will advocate more for increasing funding for STEM programs and trades but neglect humanities and their educators.
And it has a big impact. Over the past two decades, universities across the country have slowly been receiving less money as fewer students decide to go to college. In response, many schools are forced to cut funding or staff from certain departments that they can no longer afford and oftentimes history is one of these subjects.
In Wisconsin, a recent example occurred only a few years ago when the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point eliminated history and five other humanities majors entirely. The university originally proposed to cut 13 majors but shortened their list to six after significant student protests.
The university’s reason for the cuts was because of an over five million dollar budget deficit which had steadily worsened over time due to low enrollments and imposed tuition freezes.
UW-Stevens Point also described how the state government has gradually neglected funding their university over time. In the 1970s, about 50% of their budget came from state funding. By 2018, that number had decreased to only 13%. A combination of budget cuts by the state and the university have impacted humanities programs like history the most.
In turn, cuts on history programs hurt the teachers that come out of these programs. For over ten years, the number of teaching positions for history PhDs at universities has steadily decreased. Many departments respond by accepting fewer and fewer students into their programs. The result is, fewer universities than ever are offering history, and fewer historians are being trained to teach.
Similar challenges face many high school teachers. In addition, history teachers constantly must adapt to the challenges imposed on them to teach various materials to students. Many states mandate teachers incorporate certain lessons into their curriculum.
But this limits teachers’ flexibility to tailor their lessons to be meaningful and enjoyable for their students. And as schools limit students’ history education at early levels, high school teachers teach more material that the students don’t have exposure to.
Schools and students constantly criticize the value of history education so schools impose other lessons, such as writing and reading lessons, into history classes to add value to those classes.
While reading and writing are essential to history, all of the extra material history teachers must cover makes it difficult for them to teach any subject thoroughly. In addition, the increasing responsibilities make history teachers’ jobs increasingly difficult to conduct effectively, leaving many students uninterested in their history classes.
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As a history student at UW-Madison, I have seen many of these issues first-hand. Because of fears that the recent economic crisis would cause a new round of sweeping cuts to history departments, almost every major history PhD program in the country accepted almost no new graduate students, or far fewer than usual. Declining opportunities for history teachers have caused many bright and wonderful students to seek other career paths.
If we really want to give our students a good history education, we need to start funding history programs. History at universities is where the best experts can work and train our teachers. We need to also carefully consider the curriculum we mandate that history teachers add to their lessons to ensure we are not overwhelming history teachers and students.
Today, more than ever, we need history education to help everyone understand the pasts of other people. But we can’t hope to improve our history classes if we cut them altogether.
Update as of Apr. 19: UW-Stevens Point decided to scrap its proposal to drop six majors. Today, they continue to offer history and other humanities majors that were originally proposed to be eliminated.
Hayden Kolowrat ([email protected]) is a graduate student studying Southeast Asian studies.