Scholars scrutinize civics and history in Utah’s higher ed institutions

Written by Derek Monson

June 3, 2022

Reports on the status and performance of higher education are a common occurrence. When an entity like higher ed gets hundreds of millions in state taxpayer dollars (and billions more in federal taxpayer dollars), a certain level of scrutiny is to be expected.

Less common is the publication of a report offering a critical assessment of higher education in one state that also announces it intends to produce similar analyses in two other states. That is exactly what occurred in a recent release about the teaching of civics and history in colleges and universities in Arizona from the National Association of Scholars (NAS) – a nonprofit organization that seeks to reform higher education.

According to the NAS release:

This first case study is part of a series of reports titled Educating for Citizenship to be released over the next month. … How is civics taught in higher education? How do our universities seek to fulfill their civic mission? With these questions in mind, the NAS is examining three states—Arizona, Texas, and Utah. In the process of seeking answers, we examine the political and legal background for civics instruction in public higher education, providing recommendations for policymakers and university administrators alike. (emphasis added)

The author of the report on civics and history instruction in Arizona’s institutions of higher learning summed up their analysis by saying that “the Grand Canyon State is a perfect study of how college administrators obfuscate clear guidelines to achieve their own political goals.” Sometime this month we will learn whether they think something similar about the Beehive State’s colleges and universities.

Efforts to examine how institutions of higher education teach (or do not teach) American history and civics should be welcomed. Even if the conclusions are unfavorable, constructive criticism should be viewed as a healthy thing – an opportunity for critical thinking about oneself with the goal of improvement. That is part of the spirit of higher learning – and an opportunity for higher education institutions to confirm or rebuild (as the case may be) the public’s trust in them.

The natural temptation in the face of criticism is to play a political game: defend yourself, pass accountability and blame elsewhere, and hunker down against efforts to reform and change “your turf.” But if colleges and universities are truly institutions of higher learning – if that phrase is more than just a nice tagline – then those who lead those institutions must show it through higher actions, so to speak. They must rise above the instinct of human nature (and polarized partisan politics) to deflect all criticism and view it as an expression of ill will. They must reach beyond the natural impulse to refuse accountability for the negative or imperfect aspects of the groups of which we are a part.

Instead, they should act in a manner that cultivates public trust and a feeling that investment of tax dollars in higher education is merited.

That means viewing criticism of how colleges and universities teach history and civics as constructive – as something that can offer higher education opportunities for improvement. It means viewing and speaking about that criticism with fair-mindedness and professional humility: acknowledging where it is on point or has good suggestions, correcting where it is inaccurate, and accepting that outsiders can offer helpful perspectives that complement those of insiders.

It means showing in word and deed a public-mindedness about the purposes of colleges and universities: the education and professional training of students and the advancement of human knowledge. In other words, it means showing a recognition that those purposes are higher goals than the professional reputation or personal fulfillment of those employed in higher education. It also means having the courage to follow where that reasoning leads, even when it means upsetting colleagues.

Based on its report on Arizona, it seems that the forthcoming NAS report on Utah will give the state’s institutions of higher education just such an opportunity to earn public trust. How Utah’s higher education leaders respond will offer an informative gauge of their level of public-mindedness and the overall mindset currently guiding higher education in Utah.

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