January 11, 2013

A Gloomy Report on the Teaching of U.S. History

Kudos to NAS, for a thoroughly-researched--and deeply troubling--report regarding instruction of U.S. history at Texas' two flagship public universities, the University of Texas and Texas A&M. The overall finding: U.S. history faculty members at both institutions, and especially at the University of Texas, are dominated by advocates of race, class, and gender. As a result, as the report delicately observed, the two schools, and especially UT, "offered students a less-than-comprehensive picture of U.S. history."

I strongly recommend reading the report--which goes into great detail about not only faculty research interests but specific course assignments at the two schools--in its entirety. Here, however, are a few highlights:

(1) Clear connections existed between the research interests of profiled faculty members and the courses they offer. This should come as little surprise--the principle of academic freedom is premised on the idea that the freedom to teach comes from academics' particularized knowledge in their field of study. Yet defenders of the academic status quo too often try to slide past this point by suggesting the obvious: that non-specialists can easily teach areas outside of their primary fields.

The NAS report shows that (a) race/class/gender reading topics are overrepresented in U.S. history classes (NAS discovered that "of those who taught American history survey courses and had RCG interests [at both universities], 55 percent were high assigners of RCG readings"); and (b) race/class/gender topics are overrepresented in U.S. history electives. At UT, for instance, the six U.S. history special topics classes in the semester the NAS examined were: History of Mexican Americans in the US; Introduction to American Studies; The Black Power Movement; Mexican American Women, 1910-Present; Race and Revolution; and The United States and Africa. Even the sole diplomatic history offering (the last course) bows to the race/class/gender paradigm.

(2) The developing pedagogical groupthink is likely to become more, not less, intense as time passes and older faculty members retire. According to the report, "83 percent of UT faculty members teaching these courses who received their Ph.D.s in the 90s or later had RCG research interests, while only 67 percent of UT faculty members who received their Ph.D.s in the 70s or 80s had RCG research interests. 90 percent of A&M faculty members teaching these courses who received their Ph.D.s in the 90s or later had RCG research interests, while only 36 percent of A&M faculty members who received their Ph.D.s in the 70s or 80s had RCG research interests."

The greater pedagogical balance, then, that NAS found at Texas A&M likely will not remain 10 or 15 years down the road, as the newly-dominant race/class/gender faculty contingent hires like-minded figures.

(3) The potential implications on citizenship are ominous. As the report notes, "Our ļ¬ndings in this study shed light on a source of Americans' increasing ignorance about their own history. At the two institutions we studied, the focus on race, class, and gender often tended to crowd out the teaching of other perspectives, and many U.S. history courses failed to provide a comprehensive rendering of U.S. history as a whole. Thematically skewed teaching leads to an incompleteness of knowledge, as recent studies of American history knowledge among students demonstrate."

The failing of a central mission of the study of U.S. history--training future generations of American citizens--is, argues the NAS, based in a misunderstanding of the central mission of colleges and universities: that "they and particular programs within them increasingly think of themselves as responsible for reforming American society and curing it of prejudice and bigotry. When universities and university programs consider it necessary to atone for, and help erase, oppressions of the past, one way in which they do so is by depicting history as primarily a struggle of the downtrodden against rooted injustice . . . The dominance of race, class, and gender themes in history curricula came about through disciplinary mission creep. Historians and professors of United States history should return to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations."

(4) The two profiled institutions--if anything--should be skewed toward more "traditional" approaches to U.S. history. Unlike many states, the Texas state legislature requires all public university students to take a two-course survey in U.S. history. NAS reasonably infers that the legislature intended "to increase the general civic awareness and civic knowledge of college graduates"--an approach hardly served by history curricula that operate so overwhelmingly through a race/class/gender prism.

Regarding the two schools: Texas A&M has a significant military contingent in the student body and alumni base. The University of Texas is home to the Lyndon Johnson School of Public Affairs. Its campus hosts the LBJ Presidential Library. The Texas State Capitol is down the street from campus. The intellectual atmosphere on both campuses, then, is likelier to be far friendlier to "traditional" types of U.S. history than is the case at most universities.

This, in many ways, is the most depressing aspect of the NAS report. If UT and Texas A&M represent best-case scenarios among major universities in how U.S. history is taught, how bad is the typical campus likely to be?

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