July 13, 2024 11:55 pm
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Architect of Bill Mandating History and Civics Course Surprised by Resistance

Credit: iStock

by Joe Killian, NC Newsline

When House Bill 96 was filed back in February, it didn’t initially get a lot of attention. In a legislative season when higher education related-bills proposed the elimination of academic tenure, massive changes to the of the powers of political appointees, and how state universities and colleges are accredited, a bill mandating one 3-credit hour course in history and government flew comparatively below the radar.

But while a number of those other bills fell by the wayside in recent weeks, H96 — “The N.C. REACH Act” — made the “crossover” deadline for passage from one legislative chamber to the other, clearing an important hurdle to becoming law. Since that time however, students, faculty members and alumni have since raised concerns with the idea of state government creating, mandating, and dictating the content of courses without faculty involvement.

Among other provisions, the bill would require all students at UNC System universities and state community colleges to take a three credit-hour course in history and government. The course must require students to read seven documents in their entirety:

The Constitution of the United States of America,The Declaration of Independence,At least five essays from the Federalist Papers,The Emancipation Proclamation,The Gettysburg Address,Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” andThe North Carolina State Constitution.

When Newsline spoke with N.C. Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) last week, the House Majority Whip and primary sponsor of the bill said it came about because a single individual had contacted his office to push for it. Jameson Broggi, a U.S. Marine stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock, helped get a similar bill passed in his native South Carolina in 2021. Since being stationed in North Carolina a year and a half ago, he’s been looking to set something similar in place here.

“He was very involved in South Carolina and knows a lot about this,” Hardister said. “I would say he was initially the main driver on it, so it’s really something that comes from a constituent, which is often the best kind of bill.”

Broggi isn’t just a constituent interested in government and history. He’s an attorney who earned his juris doctor degree from George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, Virginia. He has served at the Pentagon as counsel to the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. He worked for former a pair of Republican lawmakers from South Carolina — former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and current Sen. Tim Scott.

Broggi has also worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Ed Meese Legal Center and with Republican South Carolina State Sen. Larry Grooms, the lead sponsor of South Carolina’s REACH Act — the measure that served as the model for House Bill 96.

For his eight years of work on the South Carolina bill, the conservative Steamboat Institute awarded Broggi its “Courage in Education” award. The institute counts him among the members of its Emerging Leaders Council.

Newsline caught up with Broggi this week to talk about the bill and laws like it across the country. Though it took a while for faculty members, administrators and Democrats to all come on board in South Carolina, Broggi said, eventually many did, and the bill passed there with bipartisan support.

“I’ve actually been surprised at the reaction here,” Broggi said.

There are similar laws in eight other states including Florida, Georgia and Texas, Broggi said. Though he only worked on the one in South Carolina, he didn’t anticipate the blowback and skepticism in North Carolina.

Surveys demonstrating college students know little about basic civics helped convince everyone a problem existed, Broggi said. The details of a plan to address it took time, he said, but eventually there was a consensus.

“This passed the state Senate in South Carolina 45 to zero,” Broggi said. “It was endorsed, after some initial resistance, by the presidents of the University of South Carolina and Clemson, the two largest universities. We even had a faculty resolution from the faculty at the University of South Carolina to implement the class even before it became law.”

In North Carolina, Broggi has encountered a very different environment. Political tensions between Democrats, Republicans, faculty members and university leaders over higher education in the state are a longstanding problem here, with Republican political appointees on the UNC Board of Governors having eliminated academic centers, ousted both university chancellors and a president of the system. Faculty groups at the state and national level have decried partisan political interference on North Carolina campuses and in the UNC System at-large, as have former and current chancellors, system leaders and even Republican political appointees themselves.

“It’s unfortunate it’s become a lightning rod here like, ‘Republicans are trying to stamp out the universities,’” Broggi said. “I guess the bottom line for me is, people have to know how our country works for all of us to continue to be free — how democracy works, because everyone participates. College graduates know a very little bit about American government and colleges aren’t doing this on their own. That’s why the law is needed.”

Critics of the bill don’t disagree with that premise, but say they’re concerned the course’s mandated reading concentrates almost entirely on the founders and doesn’t give students a broader sense of history or civics, including the voices of women, or Black and native voices that helped shape and push back on the founders’ work.

Even the acronym in the bill’s title, the “N.C. REACH Act” or “Reclaiming College Education on America’s Constitutional Heritage Act,” critics say, speaks to Republican lawmakers’ view that the curriculum at UNC System schools and the state’s community colleges needs to be “reclaimed” — in the name of a certain view of “heritage.”

As Newsline reported on Monday, prominent historians have questioned how the list of required documents came about, particularly the inclusion of a single document by a Black author – Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’”

William Sturkey, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who specializes in the history of race in the American South said that illustrates a major problem with the teaching of American history in general.

“It jumps from the Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Sturkey said.

That skips over the entire history of Black people in America in the 100 years between 1863 and 1963, Sturkey said — including essential context for how the modern Civil Rights movement came to be which would help students to actually understand King’s letter.

Broggi said he understands those criticisms, but believes people aren’t looking at the bill’s language correctly.

“There’s nothing in the bill that prevents them from teaching whatever they want about American government and American history, including all kinds of other documents,” Broggi said. “This isn’t literally nothing but the floor. It says ‘Hey, it’s an American Government course and in an American Government course at a minimum, students need to read these documents.’ I hope there would be a whole lot more. If I was writing the course myself, I would include a lot more documents. I would love to include a list of 30 documents in there.”

Concerns about academic freedom led to a relatively short list, he said.

“Unfortunately, we have professors who say there shouldn’t be a bill mandating what is required and also saying there aren’t enough documents required,” Broggi said.

Faculty at UNC System schools have pushed back on the idea of the course altogether, saying they see government mandating what is taught about history as a dangerous step and that the principle of shared governance is endangered by politicians involving themselves in the curriculum, traditionally the province of faculty and university leaders.

Broggi said he’s not convinced the course presents any danger to academic freedom. The state government created the UNC System as it currently exists and funds it, he said, and therefore elected leaders should have some role in determining the curriculum.

“The accrediting body for the University of North Carolina is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools,” Broggi said. “SACS accreditation principle 10.4. Subsection C, says their principle is that the faculty will have primary control over the curriculum. That’s their own wording for their rule for accreditation of what’s proper for a university. ‘The faculty will have primary control’ — it doesn’t say ‘exclusive,’ it says ‘primary.’ I think by any definition of the word, letting the universities, delegated from the legislature, have 97 and a half percent control the curriculum and reserving two and a half percent by the people…that is absolutely primary control.”

There are still a number of steps before the bill becomes law and plenty of room for debate, Broggi said.

Hardister agreed.

“I think this is a conversation we want to have,” Hardister said. “I think we can all agree that our students need basic knowledge of the history of our state and our nation and basic information about civics. I don’t think many people would disagree with that. So, this is the start of the conversation about how we get there.”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.