To understand just how vital American history education is at Penn, we must start with a brief history lesson.
Anyone who knows anything about American history can tell you that Philadelphia played a crucial role in the founding and development of our nation and its government, literally housing all three branches of government for a decade. Just three miles from our campus lies Independence Hall, the hallowed grounds of the Declaration of Independence’s first signing. Eleven years later, the United States Constitution was written at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The first American abolitionist society, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, was founded in Philadelphia in 1775. Our city was a crucial step for many escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad, and has remained a symbol of freedom throughout American history.
Penn specifically played a pivotal role in this history. Founded by Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s most influential figures, Franklin’s “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsilvania” became fundamental to laying the groundwork for education at Penn and in the country at large. In addition to being regarded as America’s first university and one of the only early collegiate secular institutions, we’ve educated a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, a U.S. president, and countless other prominent men and women.
Our school and the city where it resides played such an integral role in American history, so our course curriculum and scholarship must reflect that, right? Surprisingly, this is not the case. This fall, for example, the College is only offering 11 American history courses, one of which is a research seminar. Notably absent from this list of course offerings is a course on the Civil War, despite it being a decisive moment in American history. Upon examining course offerings at every other “Ivy League Plus” institution, it is apparent that Penn’s History Department is the only one that does not have a designated Civil War historian or class for its undergraduates.
Professor Jared Farmer, chair of graduate studies in the History Department and an Americanist himself, commented on the negative implications of not offering this type of scholarship at Penn. He said, "The great majority of Penn undergrads are Americans, and they're right to want to understand the country they've inherited. It's impossible to make sense of the Trump era without understanding the legacies of the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. Penn is the only university of its caliber in the United States that currently lacks faculty who teach Civil War history. My department used to offer such courses, and they were popular. Many peer institutions employ two such specialists, and Penn State has a center on the Civil War era. The situation here is embarrassing and compounds another deficiency: [Penn’s] History [Department] at the moment contains a single tenured professor who specializes in the African American experience. This hurts diversity recruitment in the graduate program. Notwithstanding the Department of Africana Studies, Penn is way behind other schools in this regard, which is especially glaring given that Philadelphia has been an important Black city for centuries."
The typical critique of more American-focused education, both historical and otherwise, is that for Penn’s domestic students, many have already been exposed to this perspective and thus don’t require reintroduction of it in college. However, with a consistent critique of the regional bias in American history education across the country, it seems as though another exposure may not only be warranted but also necessary. The Civil War, for example, can differ vastly in how it is taught, with children in Massachusetts learning of a war fought on the grounds of slavery and Confederate treason but Texas students hearing of a “War of Northern Aggression” and a battle cry to preserve states’ rights.
College first year Angel Ortiz, from Puerto Rico, expressed that he feels taking American history courses has enriched his own perspective: “As a Puerto Rican, taking American history classes originally didn’t seem to have a lot of relevance to my background. However, taking those classes has allowed me to learn so much more about both the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and helped me understand their complicated relationship today. Any Penn student, international or domestic, would walk away from an American history course with many valuable takeaways, as well as an enriched understanding of the place they live in.”
This does not even begin to address the importance of complex and well-researched American history education in an age of historical revisionists. Works like the 1619 Project from The New York Times, which has been criticized for ignoring fact-checkers like Northwestern professor Leslie Harris, and for promoting false-politicized claims like “the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America,” represent the danger of taking history out of the hands of its practitioners — historians. The project, which did not include the works cited, went on to be taught in high schools like those in Chicago. Responses like the 1776 Commission have also been criticized for committing the same historical errors that they take issue with in the 1619 Project. History is not, and should not be, a tool for political propagandizing.
The Civil War in particular provides a great opportunity for comprehensive sociopolitical conversations that can reach across the aisle. There is so much to be learned from the narratives of the war, which is arguably the most tenuous period in American history. VanJessica Gladney, history Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant in “History of American Law to 1877” explains this, saying, “The Civil War has so much room for diversity of thought about its impacts and the way that it has influenced our history. People typically have a very close-minded view of who is interested in the Civil War, that it is just 60-year-old men and their chess pieces studying military engagement, but there is also such a rich social, cultural, political, and legal history of the time period.”
Another common argument for why departments should take a less American-oriented approach is that Penn’s international student body, which makes up about 13% of the Class of 2025, is not necessarily interested in taking American-focused classes. This is contradictory, however, to the claim that American students have been overexposed to U.S. history. International students have likely had little-to-no exposure to American history pre-dating their Penn experience, and thus would be even better suited to a broad U.S.-focused course.
College sophomore João Estaca, an international student from Portugal, cited what he believed to be the importance of studying American history and why he chose to attend school in the United States: “In coming to the United States for school, I hoped to learn more about the history of this country, knowledge which I believe is crucial to understanding current political events. However, I have found that at Penn there could be more courses on this topic especially given that there are so many international students for whom it might be their first exposure to this topic. The College Foundational requirement [Cultural] Diversity in the U.S. does not entirely fulfill this desire to learn more about American history.”
While these issues obviously assert the importance of American history education overall, they don’t sufficiently address why Penn is uniquely positioned to teach these courses.
Gladney, who has worked on the Penn & Slavery Project and is doing her dissertation on the impacts of the perspectives of women escaping slavery on our historical narrative, has commented on how integral Philadelphia’s history is in the context of the larger story of abolition. She explained some of her research saying, “Philadelphia’s history did not stop when the capital moved to D.C. One of the figures I’ve been studying is someone named Jane Johnson, who freed herself and her two children literally on the docks of Philadelphia. This is our history — the first abolitionist movements were founded in our city and it was a pivotal stop on the Underground Railroad.”
As Penn students seek to advocate for the University to repair its relationship with the city through movements like Penn for PILOTs, the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes, and by taking Academically Based Community Service courses, they should also call for a Philadelphia history class. A precedent exists for this at other schools situated in urban communities, like Vanderbilt University’s “Historic Black Nashville'' course.
The reality is that American history classes offer an otherwise-difficult-to-find opportunity to engage with people across the ideological spectrum. I am currently enrolled in “History of American Law to 1877”, where we discuss historical accounts from a wide variety of points of view, and the class attracts students of all political backgrounds. While political science courses can often resemble echo chambers, wrestling with our country’s history, when done thoroughly as has been done in our class, encourages comprehensive dialogue. This is complemented by the rich intellectual diversity of these classes, attracting highly motivated students from across disciplines. (Our class features many engineers.)
Wherever your political affiliations may lie, it is simply impossible to work to facilitate change without adequate comprehension of the nation’s past. American history education is often wrongly associated with hypernationalism and exceptionalism. In reality, patriotism is found in the stories of those who have valiantly fought for the best this country has to offer. Until we understand where we have been, we simply cannot determine where we need to go, or how we can get there.
LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College sophomore studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Stamford, Conn. Her email is email@example.com.