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BYU class American Heritage continues tradition

For more than three decades, American Heritage 100 has been a staple of BYU's undergraduate offerings. The unique class employs an interdisciplinary approach to endow students with an enhanced understanding of the Constitution and its role in American life.

The course's Web site describes its genesis thusly: "In the late 1970s, under the explicit direction of the university's Board of Trustees, and the First Presidency, BYU developed American Heritage 100 to help students better understand and appreciate the core principles and social architecture of the American founding. To do so, the course draws heavily from three different disciplines: political science, economics and history."

This school year, between 5,000 and 6,000 students will take the class the university registrar denotes as "A HTG 100." The BYU General Education requirements implemented in 2004 require first-year students to either take American Heritage 100 or one of a quartet of two-class combinations culled from history, political science and economics. Because choosing American Heritage means taking a one class instead of two to fulfill the single requirement, most undergraduate students opt for American Heritage 100.

Despite its widespread popularity, American Heritage program administrator Erica Germaine says many students come into the course mistakenly believing it's wholly history.

"I think the biggest misconception about American Heritage is that it is a history class," she said. "It does it a little bit of a disservice to classify it as a history class because it is a hybrid, an interdisciplinary class that mixes history and political science and economics into one course that gives you a better understanding of the Constitution and the specific situations that the Founders [encountered] when they created a system that had never existed before."

Because it's a BYU class, American Heritage can fuse religion with the primary academic focus.

"Especially for us at BYU, we're able to tie in a religious understanding and that's what I think makes [American Heritage] so unique," Sister Germaine said. "And from that we're able to learn how the Constitution works and understand how it was set up in the eyes of the founders so we can take a 200-year-old document and make it applicable to students today."

Political science professor Matthew S. Holland chaired the American Heritage Faculty Group until beginning his new job as president of Utah Valley University in July 2009; his replacement at American Heritage is history professor Richard Kimball.

The American Heritage faculty generally only teaches the course every other year, and the 35 teaching assistants are in charge of Friday classes. With so many cooks in the kitchen, and with thousands of students taking the class each semester, Sister Germaine is the one common thread of continuity for the American Heritage department.

"I know every student isn't going to come through here and love American Heritage," she said. "But my hope is that they can walk away with an appreciation of the course and recognize how these things actually do affect them in all facets of their lives. That's the biggest challenge that I have."

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