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January 21, 2013

Defending the Race-Class-Gender Obsession in Texas

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By KC Johnson

In 2004, the Duke Conservative Union conducted a study of the political affiliations of the Duke humanities faculty, finding an overwhelming (142-8) tilt toward the Democrats. In and of itself, this discovery had many plausible explanations, though the overwhelming partisan discrepancy did raise eyebrows. (Full disclosure: I'm a registered and strongly partisan Democrat.)

But reaction by university officials and professors all but proved the critics' case that a degree of bias had infected the Duke personnel process. Campus defenders of the status quo argued that the statistics were irrelevant--even though, as Erin O'Connor noted at the time, "academic humanists believe, as a matter of principle, that EVERYTHING is meaningful, that there is absolutely nothing that cannot be interpreted, nothing whose significance is not deeper and more profound than surfaces may suggest. Everything, that is, except the overwhelming correlation between humanities faculty hiring and political affiliation." Then-Duke spokesperson John Burness speculated that a race/class/gender-dominated faculty will likely contain more critics of contemporary society--conceding that the political imbalance implied a pedagogical imbalance. Then-Philosophy Department chairman Robert Brandon infamously remarked, "We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire."

Why Such a Partisan Imbalance?

The campus reaction, in short, suggested that the figures indicated that something was askew in the Duke hiring process. (How could Brandon possibly consider a conservative candidate fairly?) Of course, the campus reaction to the lacrosse case two years later would demonstrate just how severe the problem of ideological imbalance in the Duke faculty had become.

A few years later, a similar study occurred at the University of Iowa, showing that of the History Department professors registered to vote, 22 were Democrats and none were Republicans. In and of itself, this discovery had many plausible explanations, though the overwhelming partisan discrepancy did raise eyebrows.

But, again, reaction by university officials and professors proved the critics' case. A gender history professor named Sarah Hanley termed the figures irrelevant, on the grounds that "I just had a Western civilization class where I could have hammered away on politics, but I didn't. In the history department, you don't talk about politics." (Imagine Hanley's reaction if the department had 31 Republicans and her as the only Democrat.) The then-department chairman, Colin Gordon, bizarrely cited the partisan registration in the university's home county (around 2-1 Democratic) to explain why a department that recruits from the entire country had a 22-0 partisan breakdown.

Again, the campus reaction--more so than the initial statistics--indicated something askew in the hiring process

At the University of Texas, the National Association of Scholars did a study which was far more comprehensive than what occurred at Duke or Iowa. The organization examined faculty research interests and History reading lists for a semester in 2010, and found what appeared to be a top-heavy emphasis on race, class, and gender--at the expense of more "traditional" subdisciplines, such as political, diplomatic, constitutional, or military history.

Some of the reaction to the NAS study--while highly critical--have been quite nuanced. Take, for instance, this post from UT professor Jeremi Suri, a scholar of international history whose work I very much admire. Suri says that the UT department is an excellent one for a scholar of his research interests. Regarding the specifics of the NAS claims, he notes that it's difficult to distinguish between differing types of history, and that in his courses, he discusses not only war, diplomacy, and national politics, but also such matters as "slavery, American Indians, labor unions, [and] women's suffrage." (So do I.) As I understood the question posed by the NAS study, however, the organization wondered whether this commitment to pedagogical diversity extends to reading assignments in classes taught by specialists in race, class, or gender. At least based on the figures compiled by NAS, the answer would be no, but perhaps--as the UT's official statement implies--these imbalances have vanished since 2010. Suri also criticized NAS for not sending investigators to Texas, a standard that certainly is ideal. That said, one way this issue could be addressed would come through universities committing themselves to as much transparency as possible--that is, placing syllabi and other course content, such as lecture handouts and other in-class material, online. (I do this for all my classes, so I'm not recommending a standard I'm unwilling to follow myself.)

If every Texas History Department member had the scholarly integrity of Suri, there would seem to be little reason to share NAS' concerns. Alas, the response of another departmental member to the NAS study raises far more questions, and comes close to confirming NAS' critique. Professor Joan Neuberger describes herself as a Russian cultural historian; her list of courses taught does not appear to include offerings in U.S. history, which the NAS report analyzed, but she appears to have a strong familiarity with how U.S. history is taught at Texas.

Fear of Erasing Critical Analysis

According to Professor Neuberger, the NAS' call for a more pedagogically balanced U.S. history curriculum--one that would feature more readings in U.S. political, or diplomatic, or military, or constitutional, or economic history, taught by more specialists in these fields--amounts to a demand that the UT History Department "offer a less critical view of US History and a focus on what they see as the positive elements of our past." This is, to put it mildly, a puzzling interpretation. Take the area in which I trained, U.S. diplomatic history. A standard course in 20th century diplomatic history would look at such topics as the Vietnam War, McCarthyism, the U.S.-sponsored coup in Guatemala, 1920s U.S. imperialism in the Caribbean Basin, and the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Does Professor Neuberger really believe that exposing students to such issues would constitute treating them to "a less critical view of US History . . . [focused on] the positive elements of our past"? To ask the question is to expose its absurdity.

Professor Neuberger also speculates that "the real goal of this report is to swing the pendulum all the way back [emphasis added] to a study of history that erases [emphasis added] the discussion of class, gender, and race, from the curriculum." Here's a passage (p. 7) from the report that Professor Neuberger is describing: "Teachers of American history should take race, class, and gender into account and should help students understand those aspects of our history, but those perspectives should not take precedence over all others."

How, I wonder, could Professor Neuberger have concluded that a report holding that "teachers of American history should take race, class, and gender into account and should help students understand those aspects of our history" had a "real" goal of "eras[ing] the discussion of class, gender, and race, from the curriculum"? Again, to ask the question is to expose its absurdity.

Perhaps Professor Neuberger is more careful on personnel matters when confronting applications from candidates whose research is more "traditional" than she seems to prefer than she was in analyzing the NAS report. For the sake of students at UT, I certainly hope that's the case.

KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.



Comments (1)

Kevin F. Boone:

I agree with Dr. Neiberger's response to the NAS report which I've read. NAS would rather U.S. History survey courses exist as they did prior to the 1980s. While the (conservative)organization's only been in existence since 1987, it is a proxy for the troglodytes then at the gate. Where were they when African Americans, women, and others petitioned for inclusion into what heretofore was a mostly White male canon of political, military, economic, and philosophical history?

I have numerous other concerns about this report:

Survey courses are by design very broad in scope. How can you cover everything in the kind of detail that would satisfy the girls and boys at NAS? Reading the Mayflower Compact, Common Sense...how does it know undergraduates haven't read those documents, or aren't (at least) familiar with them? If students take the American Revolution course they'll likely read those primary documents and then some.

How does it know students aren't exposed to the philosophical, military and diplomatic history of the U.S. by reading materials inclusive of women, minorities or others? Marginalized citizens haven't lived in vacuum.

I could go on and on...


Kevin Fernandel Boone
B.S., History, 1976
Bowie State University (MD)

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