Timothy Egan is the only guy who gets it

Timothy Egan is the kind of guy you’d think I could agree with:  He thinks history is important! He thinks we should write history to engage and fascinate our readers!  He thinks assaults on high school Advanced Placement history classes are foolish, as he states in his recent essay on the misguided attempts in Oklahoma to control the A.P. American history curriculum!

I agree with him on all of the above, but then he goes and writes something just as dumb and as dishonest as any opportunistic Okie legislator would write:

With the latest initiatives, the party of science denial is now getting into history denial. On the academic front, they have a point, indirectly. Much of the A.P history framework is boring, bland, and sounds like it was written by committee, which it was. There’s little narrative, drama, heroics or personality — in other words, the real-life stuff that makes for thrilling history.

Here’s a sample “learning objective” from the current national course and exam description from the College Board: “Analyze the role of economic, political, social and ethnic factors on the formation of regional identities in what would become the United States from the colonial period through the 19th century.” And you wonder why the humanities are in trouble.

That’s right:  “a sample ‘learning objective'” apparently must be just as thrilling and as full of “narrative, drama, heroics [and] personality” as Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, otherwise it’s just further proof that historians and educators are just as bad as the Oklahoma legislators who want history to be all happy talk about the Founding Fathers.

Egan pretends not to know that there’s a difference in the ways that educators communicate with each other, and the ways in which they communicate with their students, readers of history, or the general public about their work.  He writes as though an internal process document or a sample exam question exactly describes what is taught in A.P. high school classrooms.  He writes to suggest that classroom educators aren’t smart enough to know how to talk to their own students about history, and implies that they’re smart enough to communicate in professional shorthand with one another about the boring (but necessary) stuff.

And then he indicts not just A.P history teachers, not just historians, but all of the humanities.  Give me a freaking break.  By this standard, I suppose we should assume that all memos and emails written at The New York Times are worthy of Pulitzer Prizes.  One dry memo about the deadline for open enrollments this year, and you wonder why the newspaper industry is in trouble! 

This is by no means an isolated example of Egan’s stupidity.  (Right there, I initially wrote “false stupidity,” because I assume this is just a pose Egan assumes to pander to his imagined audience.  But I erased the “false” part, because it doesn’t matter if he believes what he writes about history educators or not–he’s still selling the stupid.  And if you’re selling the stupid, then you must own the stupid!)

For example, he pretended last year not to understand that complaints and protests against Condoleeza Rice’s appearance at Rutgers were in fact examples of the very liberty of speech he accused the protesters of hating.  He called Rutgers students “bigots” and “lefty thought police” because some expressed their objections to Rice’s appearance at their graduation.  (Remember, they did nothing to shut her down her speech–she voluntarily withdrew from the Rutgers commencement ceremony because students had exercised their First Amendment rights and complained about her!)  Once again, Egan can pretend he’s the only guy who “gets it.”  

I understand why Egan pretends that he’s the only guy in the room who understands both the importance of a complete version of American history as well as the “narrative, drama, heroics [and] personality” that brings historical teaching and writing to life.  It’s his brand to pretend that he’s the only guy who gets it!  I don’t like that he likes to beat on university professors, but whatever:  I can take it.  I’m a good writer and a good teacher, so his shadow-boxing doesn’t bother me.  The man has to make a living, after all.  I’ve got tenure, and he doesn’t.

But it bothers me that Egan is so unoriginal, and that he punches down.  Is it really courageous and truth-telling to beat on the scholars and high-school history teachers who develop and teach the A.P. standards, many of whom also spend part of their summers grading A.P. exams?    Is it really so politically incorrect to tell college students these days to STFU?  Of course neither college students nor history teachers are beyond criticism, but Egan willfully misrepresents their work so that he can preen and pretend that he gets it when no one else does.  Considering his recent targets, how is this much different from the anti-intellectualism of Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly?

If Egan bothered to read anything about the history of education in the U.S., most of which is written by us boring, old professors, he’d see just how hackneyed and stereotyped his complaints really are.  History is always too important to be left to the historians, and the world has never wanted for lamentations about the rising generation.  Really.  You can look it up and get it yourself.

15 thoughts on “Timothy Egan is the only guy who gets it

  1. The bashing of academics you find in the *New York Times* can be pretty irresponsible. Take a look at Frank Bruni’s op-ed “College, Poetry and Purpose,” which appeared on February 18. He repeats some anecdotal and sometimes misleading information he gets from a curmudgeonly contingent faculty member who teaches in the English department at Penn. This faculty member thinks that there is some relation among (a) treating students as consumers: (b) the presence of courses in “Chaucer and Women in the Middle Ages” (horrors!); and (c) some students’ reliance upon the word “like.” Her claim that “survey courses have fallen out of favor” can be disproven pretty quickly if you look at that English department’s program for majors, by the way.


  2. That was so much the weirdest thing about last season’s graduation speaker debacles. The speakers pulled out because some students said they didn’t want to hear said famous person on *their* graduation day. Because of free speech, they should shut up and had to listen to whoever, but they were not supposed to speak and upset said famous person (or the donors who had made the connection).

    My proposal? Get rid of graduation speakers: the day is supposed to celebrate the students, and they should be the focus. Famous people become the story, and not the students. I’ve heard LOTS of commencement addresses in my day, because I always go, and I remember maybe three of them.

    //end rant//
    And punching down is just so classy.


  3. Personally, I’m getting pretty tired of the guys (it always seems to be guys) who present themselves as “the only guy who gets it,” especially when they’re teachers/professors writing for a general audience, and implying, or outright saying, that most teachers/professors aren’t really very good at what they do. It’s annoying, and untrue, and aggrandizing oneself at the expense of one’s colleagues (i.e. throwing one’s colleagues under the proverbial bus) is just plain bad behavior. I’m also not sure it even counts as a brand anymore, because there are so many guys out there trying to occupy this space.


  4. “Analyze the role of economic, political, social and ethnic factors on the formation of regional identities in what would become the United States from the colonial period through the 19th century.”

    Not opining on whether Egan has ulterior motives for bashing these standards, but you can’t deny that this is an absolutely horrible sentence. It’s verging on ungrammatical.


  5. It’s not glamorous, but don’t think that sentence is ungrammatical (except for missing an Oxford comma). It is convoluted, but I think I know why. In the past, it would have been written thus:

    “Analyze the role of economic, political, social and ethnic factors on the formation of regional identities in the United States from the colonial period through the 19th century.”

    But fortunately, historians and students of history have become more nuanced and specific, so we now recognize that it’s inaccurate and incomplete to talk of the “colonial period” in the U.S. (if you mean to refer to pre-1776 history), and it’s also inaccurate to talk about a lot of what’s now the U.S. as “the U.S.” before 1850, or 1848, or 1815, or 1787, or whatever, and the directive clearly means to encourage a broad analysis of large portions of the North American continent over three centuries or more.

    So, that’s a complicated idea, and it’s no surprise that it’s a complicated business to communicate it accurately and completely.

    Contingent Cassandra makes a great point about the “only guy who gets it” as a gendered trope, one that is perhaps occupied more by men than by women precisely because they want to hack their little iceberg from the big iceberg and float away. (Just don’t crash into the other “only guys” out there!)

    Susan is right: graduation is for the students. Let them speak (if anyone must speak at all.) Universities can invite speakers of all backgrounds and points of view at any other time during the year. In fact, most of them do, and most speakers speak with nary a peep of protest because (DUH!) the vast majority of students don’t demand and would never think of demanding that every speaker on campus must reflect their own perspective. The reason students protest graduation speakers or honorees is that it’s perceived as an honor from the university as a whole, and those who disagree with that honoring should be free to express their position without being called “fascists” and “thought police.”

    EngLitProf: I’ll have to look up Bruni’s columns. I don’t read him regularly. From your description, the allegation that pandering to student “customers” = women’s lit courses sounds like a complaint from the 1970s! It makes me feel like putting on a bikini and dancing around like Goldie Hawn on Laugh In. Sock it to me, baby! Hilarious.


  6. Egan has held two of the greatest mansplaining jobs that the world can offer–a gig as national correspondent for the Times, followed by his current online opinion column. No wonder he knows all, and enjoys telling us about it so much.


  7. Timothy Egan has been kind to me, and The Worst Hard Time is a stellar non-fiction book about the era my poetry is set in; however, I’m really sorry to hear that he defended Condi Rice in any way. Nobody in the Bush administration has ever taken any responsibility for their mortal sins.

    Having said that, the language “educators” use in “learning objectives” is dead, dead, dead.


  8. Shelly, why are you getting all judgy about the technical language that educators (no quotation marks here) use when laying out objectives for AP history classes? One of the (many) beefs I’ve aired on this blog is the expectation that everything historians & other humanities scholars do & discuss has to be immediately understood by non-professionals. Give me a break. No one ever complains that articles by physicists and mathmeticians aren’t written at a sixth grade reading level to be immediately and clearly understood by members of the general public.

    While I understand that criticism when it comes to the books we write (although I think it’s at least 20 years outdated), It’s not a problem for history educators to communicate with one another in a language that may seem “dead, dead, dead” to you. They’re only talking to one another. Teachers are free (and I’m sure are encouraged to) translate those “objectives” into real life lectures, reading assignments, and classroom activities that bring the class alive.

    You know what? I have three “learning objectives” on my syllabi now. I didn’t put them there because I think they’re important or useful in any way. I put them there because STATE LEGISLATORS have demanded that we faculty prove the value of our work by stating our “learning objectives” on each syllabus. Here are my “learning objectives” for my survey class, and yes, they’re “dead, dead, dead:”

    1) Students will through lectures, course readings, and participation in class discussions learn the chronology and periodization of colonial North American history and the history of the early United States.
    2) Students will through three outside of class essays, a midterm essay exam, and a final essay exam learn to write clear and concise, argument-driven history essays, explore causation and consequence, and engage in comparative analysis and the analysis of change over time.
    3) Students will develop awareness of the connections between the political, social, economic, cultural, intellectual and technological developments and their significance in early U.S. History.

    But why blame the poor educators and historians who are the only ones trying to keep the lamp of learning alive? Denying the utility in any case for using a technical but dry shorthand is as good as telling us that history is too important to be left to the historians. It’s as good as saying that we don’t have any specialized knowledge or training that might benefit students of history. And that puts you in company with the foolish Okie legislator who got us all talking about AP courses again.


  9. Pingback: Who’s telling who to STFU at American universities? Observations on teaching at a HWCU. | Historiann

  10. Pingback: Mixed Race Studies » Scholarly Perspectives on Mixed-Race » Who’s telling who to STFU at American universities? Observations on teaching at a HWCU.

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