American history has been radically transformed on our campuses. Traditional topics are now not only marginalized but "re-visioned" to become more compatible with the dominant race/class/gender paradigm.
In two posts last fall, I took a look at U.S. history offerings at Bowdoin College. The liberal arts college, one of the nation's finest, long enjoyed a reputation as a training ground of Maine politicians, at both the state and federal level. The staffing of its History Department suggests that the college has abandoned that mission, with the intent to exclude significant portions of the American past. (Two of the department's five Americanists specialize in U.S. environmental history; the department's only non-environmental 20th century U.S. historian has a Ph.D. in the history of science.)
The department's own U.S. offerings featured a heavy course emphasis on Western U.S. history, including a history of California, seemingly odd choices for a school in Maine but a subfield that heavily stresses such trendy themes as environmental degradation, exploitation of Native Americans, and discrimination against Hispanics and Asians. In the previous semester, the department's token "traditional" course topic, a class on the Cold War, was taught by the school's historian of science and featured heavy use of film.
What about the situation at a larger--and more nationally renowned--History Department? To find out, I turned to the fall 2012 offerings at UCLA.
The department's webpage excitedly announces three new course clusters in which undergraduates can specialize. Two of the topics raise eyebrows: " " (tailored to those, apparently, for whom the department's more general race/class/gender approach isn't enough) and " ," which seems to invite politicization. "This cluster," the department indicates, "aims to provide an organizational footing for the Department's commitment to applying history in the service of the larger community." The third new cluster is oral history.
At the class level, this semester the UCLA department website lists 16 courses in U.S. history since 1789. No courses deal with the Early Republic or the early 19th century. The only coverage of the Civil War comes in the form of small portions of thematic courses dealing either with race or gender (Slavery: Narrative, Novel, and Film, History of Women in the U.S., 1860-1980).It offers no classes on U.S. military history or U.S. constitutional history. The only standard survey comes in the class dealing with the New Deal, World War II, and the immediate postwar period.
Look what the department emphasizes. A quarter of the classes deal with race. Another two courses focus on ethnicity--including Asian-American cuisine; another two focus on gender. Fifteen or twenty years ago, students might encounter these courses in an ethnic studies department, not a history department at one of the nation's leading public universities.
Consider, moreover, what students receive from two of the few UCLA courses whose topics, at first glance, appear to be "traditional." One course, on social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, is hopelessly slanted toward the left. We might expect some treatment of significant right-wing social movements, including the grassroots conservative activists profiled in Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm; the conservative women mobilized by Phyllis Schlafly to oppose the ERA; the pro-life activists mobilized by Roe; and perhaps most broadly, the emergence of a powerful grassroots movement of conservative Christians who played a critical role in American society for the next three decades. But these are not covered. Whom does the course profile? African-Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, "At Large Advocates," and "Radical Women and Gay Women."
For good measure, the professor shielded his syllabus behind a password-protected site, ensuring that California taxpayers can't see his reading assignments. However, the bookstore's website provides a list of the books the professor assigned, a group that doesn't exactly suggest a desire to cover a wide array of movements. Among others, they include Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun, The Black Panther Party Reconsidered, Enriqueta Vasquez & the Chicano Movement; Lakota Woman.
What about the department's only fall 2012 course focused on U.S. foreign relations? Americans' Empires, which explores "Americans' participation in a world structured by colonialism," operates under the "premise that the traditional historiography avoids confronting the myriad institutional, intellectual, imaginary, and everyday ways in which Americans participated in a broader world that was shaped by colonial empires, from before the American Revolution of 1776 to the present." Hardly fair-minded.
There is one important way, however, in which UCLA differs from Bowdoin. Bowdoin continues its legacy of training Maine's future leaders. UCLA's mission statement, on the other hand, makes no such pretense. Along with an Orwellian framing of certain types of diversity--"We strive at once for excellence and diversity, recognizing that openness and inclusion produce true quality," asserted as truth with no dissent allowed--the university describes its "primary purpose as a public research university is the creation, dissemination, preservation, and application of knowledge for the betterment of our global society." [emphasis added]
It's hard to see how a pedagogically skewed U.S. history curriculum advances this mission. But at least UCLA can't be accused of hypocrisy in citizenry training.