How Should We Teach History?

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a point-counterpoint feature on the teaching of history.  The occasion for such a feature is the recent report by the National Association of Scholars, “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?”  

If you are unfamiliar with all the hullabaloo surrounding this report you can get up to speed here.  Basically, the “Recasting History” project concludes that college history courses in Texas (at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University) emphasize race, class, and gender at the expense of other types of history, such as military, diplomatic, or intellectual history.

Jim Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association, and Elaine Carey, the V.P. for the AHA’s Teaching Division, have used their space in The Chronicle to challenge “Recasting History.”  It is a pretty damning critique.  Here is just a taste:

Any historian who writes or teaches about the dynamics of power in a context that includes black people is understood by this report to be interested exclusively in “race,” American slavery being merely a “racial” topic with little of consequence for political, intellectual, religious, diplomatic, or military history.

 The biography of a prominent Virginia planter is categorized solely under “race” and “class”—not political or intellectual history, fields supposedly underrepresented in syllabi. To study Abigail Adams is an exercise in gender history—never mind her writings about the political ramifications of the American Revolution (much less recognizing that any study of her husband and other founding fathers will be equally gender-related). A classic study of 17th-century Massachusetts—one that has taught two generations of students about Puritan notions of community, religion, and governance—is dismissed as “class” analysis, ducking the “big questions” of American history. 

The Great Depression, too, falls into the “class” category, as any study of that period will by definition focus exclusively on workers and employers rather than on banking, politics, and diplomacy, not to mention the history of ideas or politics.
This all seemed at first glance odd, tendentious, and uninformed. Upon careful reading, it turned out to be that and worse

Despite its denunciation of “ideologically partisan approaches,” the report itself is based on an idiosyncratic and ideologically driven taxonomy of the books, articles, and syllabi of historians, compiled with little knowledge of the scholarly literature and even less inclination to engage historians in serious conversation about our work.

Although ostensibly analyzing how American history is taught at two universities, the authors neither attended classes nor spoke with instructors. They did not examine lectures, in-class activities, or audiovisual presentations; their report signals no knowledge of digital materials or discussions, assignments, or examinations. The document tells us little about teaching or learning; it merely surveys reading assignments, many of which the authors seem to have either not read or not understood. Moreover, they assume that to the extent that faculty members focus on so-called RCG subjects, they necessarily sacrifice coverage of broader themes in American history.

The counterpoint is written by Richard Pells, an emeritus professor at the University of Texas.  He believes that the “Recasting History” report is correct.  He chides the historical academy for it exclusive obsession with social history.  Here is a taste:

Nevertheless, what has developed at the University of Texas over the past 20 years is an almost oppressive orthodoxy and a lack of intellectual diversity among the history faculty. The result is that (with a few notable exceptions, like the work of the presidential historian H.W. Brands) very few courses are taught or books written by the current faculty on the history of American government, economic development, or culture and the arts, or on America’s strategic and tactical participation in wars, particularly in the 20th century. Indeed, the Texas department has not employed a military historian since the 1970s.

These are all subjects of supreme importance in understanding the evolution and current state of America. One cannot expect either undergraduate or graduate students to fully comprehend the complexities of American history without serious and extensive consideration of such topics.

In short, to paraphrase the columnist George Will, academics and especially specialists in American history at Texas are in favor of diversity in everything but thought. This is not just an acerbic quotation, nor is the NAS report to be dismissed as a right-wing polemic. The crises of intellectual conformity that Will and the association are depicting are endemic to academic life all over the country.

From where I sit it appears that both articles make some good points.  Grossman and Carey remind us that it is hard to place a piece of scholarship into only one category.  Pell’s point about the lack of intellectual diversity in the academy is worth considering.

One thought on “How Should We Teach History?

  1. The problem with the NAS report, as I see it, is it was designed from the start to affirm the conservative biases of the organization's members. The premise was “we think there's too much RCG research and teaching going on in the History profession.” From there, they set out to count anything that could be interpreted as having RCG content, and interpreted that to mean anything that discussed non-white, non-male, non-poor people. It would have been more honest to count every assignment about elite white males as also having “RCG content” as, believe it or not, elite while males have a class, a race, and a gender! Had they done this, they might have concluded that 100% of the readings and courses had “RCG content.”

    A better, more objective question to ask would have been this: have the historical subjects taught (and written about) by academic historians become broader or more narrow over time? We are historians, after all–shouldn't we consider a historical approach to studying the issue? Looking at research, a quick review of the tables of contents from the American Historical Review in just the last year finds articles with political, legal, international/diplomatic, cultural (both high and low), agricultural, environmental, intellectual, religious, and social history approaches to the study of the past. [Some of these articles address race, class or gender, too.] I'm guessing a review of the table of contents from AHR issues from 1913 would find a much smaller set of approaches. I suspect a more thorough review of the subjects covered by the AHR over time, and the courses taught in undergraduate history programs over time would conclude that there has never been a time in the history of the profession when the breadth of approaches to the past has been broader than now.


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