January 10, 2013

Why the Skewing of U.S. History Matters

Over the past several weeks, I've penned several posts examining the transformation of how U.S. history is taught, and studied, in higher education. The two clear patterns: (1) a decline in U.S. historians who study topics deemed "traditional"; and (2) a "re-visioning" of many of those who continue to study "traditional" topics to make their focus either less U.S.-centered or more amenable to the omnipotent race/class/gender trinity. The result: at many institutions, even those students who want to take courses in U.S. political, diplomatic, constitutional, or military history are unable to do so.

Why should anyone outside the academy care about this transformation? Beyond the obvious--that the colleges and universities of any nation should provide instruction from specialists in that nation's past governmental actions--let me offer three reasons. The first involves lower-level history instruction, an area in which there's much greater public interest (and involvement) than regarding the college curriculum. In recent years, state social studies standards have occasionally been the subject of a far-right overreach, as in Texas when a Tea Party contingent took over the state education board, or in Nebraska, which adopted standards mandating teaching social studies through the prism of "the United States as an exceptional nation based upon personal freedom, the inherent nature of citizens' rights and democratic ideals."

But for the most part, state standards have, reasonably, sought to ensure that students have a basic familiarity with such "traditional" topics as the Presidents, the Constitution, important military conflicts in U.S. history, and key pieces of legislation and public policy developments. The assumption of state education boards, of course, is that colleges and universities will adequately train future teachers to teach such subjects. Yet given the staffing trend within history departments nationwide, there's no longer any reason to believe this is so.

In fact, we're increasingly likely to see situations in which social studies teachers are required to teach topics (the United States in World War I? the Constitutional Convention?) that as college students they never encountered--or even could encounter--through the race/class/gender prism that dominates the contemporary academy.

Given the amount of money that most state legislatures devote to public education, it's hard to imagine such a situation being satisfactory. When will the first state legislature accept its appropriate oversight role and look into the matter?

Promotion of a more open intellectual environment on campus provides a second reason for the importance of ensuring a more pedagogically diverse approach to the American past. It's true, of course, that a professor whose research specialty is African-American homosexuality might be a strong supporter of Ward Connerly's campaign against racial preferences; and a professor hired in U.S. military history who has penned an admiring biography of William Westmoreland might be a die-hard advocate of campus speech codes. But--as the University of Iowa History Department debacle demonstrated--all other things being equal, a department whose U.S. historians are more pedagogically diverse is likely to be more ideologically diverse as well. In our era of campus groupthink, we should do everything possible to encourage a greater range of voices among the professoriate.

A final rationale is transparency. News this week that the baseball writers had declined to elect even one new member to the Hall of Fame rejuvenated the debate over steroid use. Steroid apologists (such as the bulk of ESPN Hall of Fame voters) contend that since there's no way we can know who did or did not cheat, and since there's no way we can determine precisely how much using steroids helped an individual ballplayer, voters should simply ignore the issue, and send the likes of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens to Cooperstown. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, countering this line of thinking, noted how many Hall of Fame players have criticized steroid use."Where are all the former players," he wondered,"arguing for known steroid users to be in the Hall?" Indeed, if steroids had so little effect, why wasn't there even one player who was open about his use at the time?

This same publicity standard could apply to major history departments. If, in fact, there's nothing to be ashamed of in purging "traditional" approaches to the American past, why don't we see departments and colleges boasting of the fact? Departmental websites could explain about how the study of U.S. history must occur through the prism of race, class, and gender; or how the university eschews such old-fashioned topics as political, diplomatic, or military history. But with rare exceptions (UCLA seems to be one) colleges have followed the opposite approach, doing everything they can to obscure just how one-sided their approach to U.S. history has become. For those parents, students, or alumni who don't have the time to drill down and comprehensively examine curriculum (as the NAS recently did for Texas schools), the assumption remains that all elements of the American past continue to be taught.

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Published by the Manhattan Institute
The Manhattan Insitute's Center for the American University.