A dumb and dishonest view of American history education in Texas

Simple arithmetic foils dumb report!

Via Inside Higher Ed, we learned yesterday that the National Association of “Scholars” has issued a report on the alleged dominance of race, class, and gender in American history survey classes at both the University of Texas at Austin and at Texas A&M University.  Its analysis, called “Recasting History:  Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?,” claims that vitally important topics in political, intellectual, and military history (for example) are being ignored because of professors’ insistence on elevating “RCG” topics above all others:

We found that all too often the course readings gave strong emphasis to race, class, or gender (RCG) social history, an emphasis so strong that it diminished the attention given to other subjects in American history (such as military, diplomatic, religious, intellectual history). The result is that these institutions frequently offered students a less-than-comprehensive picture of U.S. history, 5.

The report’s methodology, such as it is, is a laughably incomplete review of just course syllabi and web pages to determine faculty research interests in “RCG” topics, as the NAS calls it:  “[W]e divided course readings and faculty interests into 11 broad content categories well established in the discipline,” 10.  So, how do the course reading assignments in UT and TAMU American history courses break down?  Here are their numbers, found on p. 16 in the report.  I’ve taken the numbers from a chart and arranged the above topics in descending order in their appearance in course readings on syllabi:

  • Social History with Racial and Ethnic Emphasis:  36%
  • Political History:  31%
  • Philosophical and Intellectual History:  21%
  • Diplomatic and International Relations History:  13%
  • Social History with Gender Emphasis:  12%
  • Social History with Social Class Emphasis:  11%
  • Economic and Business History:  10%
  • Social and Cultural History – Other:  8%
  • Military History:  7%
  • Religious History:  7%
  • Scientific, Environmental, and Technological History:  2%

The numbers here, analyzing 625 different reading assignments in survey, special topics, and Texas history courses, do not add up to 100%, as several of the readings were (rightfully) considered to be based in more than one subfield.

According to the report’s own numbers, “traditional” topics like political, diplomatic, and intellectual history are the central concerns of “only” 65% of UT and TAMU reading assignments.  Furthermore, they’re only behind race in terms of their frequency on the syllabus–each of these subfields appears on syllabi more often than either gender or class-based readings.  If we add in the other non-social or cultural history subfields, we get to the lordly number of 91%!  Where’s the problem, exactly, if fewer than 1 out of 10 reading assignments mysteriously refuses to address “traditional” history subfields?  Even if you accept the NAS’s evaluation of the nature of reading assignments and add together all of the “RCG” readings, they comprise all or part of only 59% of course reading assignments, 30% less than the non-social history subfields listed above.  As I read the report, it became clear that the central concern of the NAS is not the dominance of gender or class-based readings in history courses, as sadly they concern just 23% of course readings combined.  It’s the prominence of race and ethnicity in TAMU and UT courses, which they put at the head of the class with 36% of all course readings.

This kind of analysis always puts the burden of addressing the whole sweep of American history on the scholars of non-white, non-male, and/or working class people.  Never are historians who write about tiny, elite minorities such as politicians, business tycoons, Christian ministers, or generals urged to show how their research or teaching relates to the vast majority of people in American history.  The NAS’s bias is evident in the report when it calls out the “non-survey special topics courses focused on relatively narrow historical topics” at UT which in its view are oddly focused on racial or ethnic themes, such as these courses singled out on p. 14:

  • History of Mexican Americans in the US
  • Introduction to American Studies
  • The Black Power Movement
  • Mexican American Women, 1910-present
  • Race and Revolution
  • The United States and Africa

How, exactly, are “The Black Power Movement” or “Race and Revolution” not political history courses?  How exactly would “The United States and Africa” be taught if not largely as a diplomatic history course?  “Introduction to American Studies” is too vague a course to judge by its title–but my guess is that there would be a whole hell of a lot of race and gender, yes, but also intellectual, literary, religious, and political history as well.  And who, honestly, would complain about the flagship university of a southwestern border state offering courses that focus on Latin@ history, which would of course include a great deal of political, intellectual, and religious history?  (And why do we never hear complaints that universities in Michigan, New York, and Maine frequently hire historians of Canada, and even sponsor Canadian Studies programs?  I wonder.)

I suspect that the NAS’s method of categorizing course readings, course subjects, and faculty research interests is essentially the theory that underlies “cooties:”  if a reading mentions “RCG” in its title at all, it gets put in the appropriate “RCG” category.  If it doesn’t, it’s considered an uncontaminated articulation of an approved conservative subfield in the profession.

What, I wonder, would the NAS do with me, a historian of women, gender, and sexuality, who wrote a book that has “war” as the first word in the subtitle, and which has been reviewed by military historians and women’s historians alike?  Hey, NAS:  I’m writing a book about a Catholic nun now–does that make me a historian of religion only, or can I still be a dangerous Marxist feminazi?  What would they make of my survey syllabus, which features these books as my required readings:

  1. Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, The Dominion of War:  Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000 (2005)
  2. Ernesto Chavez, The U.S. War with Mexico:  A Brief History with Documents (2008)
  3. Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God : with Related Documents, (ed. Neil Salisbury, 1997)
  4. Reading The American Past:  vol. 1, to 1877, ed. Michael P. Johnson (2012)

I guess I’d get major military history points (tragically overlooked at only 7%!) for assigning The Dominion of War, but then would The U.S. War with Mexico be considered a military history title too?  (That book is an excellent example of what I’m talking about here:  it’s political, diplomatic, and military history, but it is also largely about the racialized nature of the conflict.  Would the NAS assume that because the editor’s name is Latino?)  And what would the NAS do about poor old Mary Rowlandson?  yes, she’s a female author, but the book is about her captivity among the Nipmuc and Narragansett.  And yet from her perspective, it’s all about The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (duh!) and so must be read as a religious document as well.

Most of us, including my freshman students, have no problem grasping the interrelated and diverse interests that most primary and secondary sources have.  Most of us get it that few things are only one thing or another, rather than a complicated (and frequently contradictory) set of concerns touching on a number of subjects.  We can walk and chew gum–we don’t have to choose.

Whenever I hear complaints about history education or the historical profession like those documented in the NAS’s silly report, I always wonder if the real nature of their complaint isn’t that historians who focus on race, class, and gender aren’t addressing military, political, intellectual, diplomatic, or other topic conservatives claim are “more important.”  I suspect that their real fear is that we “RCG” historians are doing just that–which is why we’re also the ones accused of “politicizing” the curriculum, and it’s why refusing to acknowledge “RCG” themes is considered an appropriately apolitical kind of American history.

Clearly, the only honest answer to the NAS’s report’s question, “Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?” is no, even on the basis of its own shoddy research.

*        *        *        *        *        *

For another takedown of the NAS report by a professor in one of the so-called traditional fields, see “What Kind of History Should We Teach,” by Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy at UT-Austin.

51 thoughts on “A dumb and dishonest view of American history education in Texas

  1. Having taken the “Race and revolution” course, and reading what you have said here,I am left with the impression that you have not taken the time to really delve into these courses in their executions, but stopped at a somewhat superficial reaction to the appearances. I can assure you that the course I took was almost completely anthropological in nature, deali g with political history in a very limited way. Until you have actually sat in on and taken part in the discussions, it is impossible to ascertain what the classes are “about.” Serious college courses can never be accurately accounted for by the superficial analysis of course titles, reading lists, and syllabi.

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