SC House changes college history requirements. Here’s what students need to know

Emily Bohatch
·3 min read

South Carolina college students could next year be required to study pivotal historical U.S. documents before they graduate.

On Tuesday, the state House cleared legislation that would require students at public colleges to study the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, at least five essays from the Federalist Papers and one or more documents about the African American struggle for freedom in order to graduate.

In the bill, students would be required to take a three credit hour course covering those documents to get their bachelor’s degree. Public colleges and universities would not be required to create a new course. The bill states the material can be absorbed into existing courses on campus, such as a course on American history.

The new coursework will not be required for students already enrolled in classes but will start with the 2021 freshman class.

The legislation has already passed the Senate but will be sent back to the chamber, then to the governor should the Senate agree to the House’s changes.

Currently, South Carolina law only requires college students to learn the “essentials” of the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and parts of the Federalist Papers, a series of essays aimed at convincing the public they needed to support ratifying the Constitution. The Emancipation Proclamation and the other documents on Reconstruction and the African American freedom struggle are not currently required but were added in by the state House after a compromise with Democrats.

Supporters of the bill said the coursework change will advance student’s understanding of their civic rights and of the country’s history.

“We are telling people here’s the owner’s manual to the United States of America. You own it,” state Rep. Timothy McGinnis, R-Horry, said on the House floor last Wednesday. “We want you to read it. We want you to know what rights you have and how you’re protected by your Constitution.”

Backers also said it is a needed update to a 1920s law that required the Constitution to be taught for an entire year, today’s equivalent of six credit hours. State lawmakers said many colleges throughout the state have not been complying with current law.

The measure passed this month with support from college officials, in part, they said, because it reduces the amount of credit hours.

The Senate-sponsored legislation moved through the Senate in March by a unanimous vote, but it hit a snag in the state House — which voted 91-12 last week — over concerns about how political views could impact teaching of the Constitution and about the lack of required reading on documents that pertained to Black Americans.

State lawmakers agreed they could mandate what is taught in public institutions, but they could not order it to be taught in a certain way.

Finding a compromise, House Democrats were able to tweak the measure to include documents about African Americans, particularly documents about the Reconstruction, a period of time after the Civil War when Black Americans flourished and held public office.

“How can we, who say we are interested in the history of our nation, the founding documents of our nation, not include the portion of our nation where people who look like me were in power?” state Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Richland, said during the House’s debate last Thursday. “It is a mistake not to.”

State Rep. Gilda Cobb Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said students could not get an accurate historical education if they did not learn about the period of Reconstruction, arguing the bulk of history is written by white historians.

“What I want to impress upon you is that what we have in this bill as currently amended is half of the picture,” Cobb-Hunter said last Wednesday. :And some would argue, y’all, that it’s not even half.”