Not to make this personal or anything, but since the publication a couple of months ago of my book The Victims’ Revolution – which is, essentially, a critique of the way American universities teach the humanities nowadays – academics have chosen either to ignore the book or to dismiss it by claiming that the humanities aren’t anywhere near as preoccupied as I claim with the ideological holy trinity of race, class, and gender. One or two of them have added that, well, maybe the humanities were kind of preoccupied with such things a while back, but all that stuff (they insist) is on its way out. Now along comes a study from the National Association of Scholars that makes me feel that, if anything, (a) I understated the problem, and (b) far from being on its way out, it’s going from bad to worse.
Entitled Recasting History, the NAS study – the product of a collaboration between the NAS’s Center for the Study of the Curriculum and the Texas Association of Scholars – takes a close look at history courses at two major Lone Star State institutions: the University of Texas at Austin and A&M University at College Station. Specifically, the researchers examined the assigned readings for every single Fall 2010 section (85 in all) of every lower-division course at either university that satisfied its U.S. history requirement. The study’s main finding: that the history courses at both UT and A&M place so much emphasis on race, class, and gender – or, as the report handily puts it, “RCG” – that other aspects of history get short shrift.
The consequence, as the researchers themselves put it, is that students are presented with “a less-than-comprehensive picture of U.S. history.” Or, even worse, “a constrained version of the past.” Or, worse still – and this really says it – “a narrowing conception of our nation” in which “the elevation of racial, class, and sexual identity into the central story of America” causes “individual rights, entrepreneurship, industrialization, self-reliance, religion, war, science,” and a multitude of other important aspects of U.S. history to “fade into the margins along with the persons and events associated with them.” The study’s authors should perhaps be commended for resisting the temptation to use terms like twisted, slanted, distorted, and perverted, even though every one of these words is entirely appropriate to the occasion.
Interestingly, the obsession with RCG is even higher at UT than is it at A&M, which, given that UT is generally considered slightly better than A&M (UT is rated # 46 by U.S. News and World Report , with A&M at #65), confirms my growing, if highly counterintuitive, suspicion that people who want their kids to get the best possible education in the humanities are usually better off sending them to second-tier rather than first-tier colleges – the point being that the fancier the college, the higher the B.S. quotient in these matters is likely to be. One interesting finding in the report is that professors’ own research interests influence their tendency to assign RCG readings considerably less than what the report refers to as the university’s or department’s “culture” – which is a nice way of saying that humanities teachers in higher education nowadays, despite their view of themselves as fearless revolutionary pedagogues in the mold of Paulo Freire and Frantz Fanon, tend to be terrified of being seen as anything other than team players.
One of the NAS’s findings is that there’s “no common core of readings” in the Introduction to U.S. History courses at either institution. Seventy-nine percent of those who taught Fall 2010 intro courses in U.S. history at UT and A&M eschewed anthologies, instead assigning readings that they’d handpicked – and that, the report notes, are “much more heavily tilted to race, class, and gender themes than those drawn from anthologies.” The most frequently assigned work was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which seven out of thirty-three teachers put on their reading lists. But other equally or more important texts weren’t read in any of the introductory classes. The report emphasizes students’ lack of exposure to primary documents:
Classic historical memoirs or autobiographies were rarely assigned. The six assigned anthologies were not helpful in providing access to primary source documents. Only one anthology assigned by only two faculty members (Reading the American Past) gave students reading assignments that included George Washington’s Farewell Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address. Only one faculty member assigned the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Of the 33 faculty members who taught survey courses, only four assigned even portions of the Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson and only one assigned Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville….Classic political documents such as the Mayflower Compact and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address were not assigned by any faculty members.
What did the students read? The study includes a list of all forty-nine books that appeared on one or more of the various professors’ reading lists, and while many of these books – as the researchers are quick to point out – may be of value, the overall bias is clear. Here are all the titles that start with the letters A through C: Abigail Adams: A Revolutionary American Woman; American Negro Slavery; American Slavery: 1619-1877; Apostles of Disunion; Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776; Black Boy; Black Like Me; Bonds of Womanhood: Woman’s Sphere in New England, 1780-1835; Cesar Chavez and La Causa; Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England; and Coming of Age in Mississippi.
In order to come up with a reasonably objective take on just how – well – twisted, slanted, distorted, and perverted these profs’ lists of assigned readings were, the NAS’s researchers compared them to the National Archives and Records Administration’s list of 100 “milestone documents” of U.S. history from 1776 to 1965 – documents that, according to the NARA, “have helped shape the national character, and they reflect our diversity, our unity, and our commitment as a nation to continue our work toward forming ‘a more perfect union.’” The list begins with such texts as the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Federalist Papers, includes such items as the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, and concludes with JFK’s Inaugural Address. Only 23 of the NARA’s 100 documents were assigned by any history instructor at UT or A&M, and – get this – a full 89 percent of the teachers didn’t assign a single one of the 100 key documents. Indeed, “77% of the documents went totally unassigned.” In other words, as the NAS report flatly puts it: “Most students taking U.S. history courses…did not have exposure to any of these key works of American history.”
In addition to the history survey courses, the NAS study looked at “special topics” courses in history. While A&M offered one such course – on the unquestionably important and serious topic “American Sea Power” – UT had six such courses. They were on the following topics: “History of Mexican Americans in the U.S.,” “Introduction to American Studies,” “The Black Power Movement,” “Mexican American Women, 1910-Present,” “Race and Revolution,” and “The United States and Africa.” The readings in these UT course were even more, um – twisted? slanted? – than those for the intro courses, with more than half of the texts focusing on “RCG topics.” Here’s the A-through-C rundown: Africanisms in American Culture; Assata: An Autobiography; Barefoot Heart: Stories of a Migrant Child; Becoming Mexican-American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1940-1945; Chicana Feminist Thought; Claiming Rights and Righting Wrongs in Texas, Mexican Workers and Job Politics; and, once again, Coming of Age in Mississippi.
What to say about all this? At UT, in-state tuition and fees amount to $9,792 a year; out-of-state tuition and fees, $33,060 a year. Imagine coughing up that kind of dough so that your kid can come away with the kind of picture of America and its history that is inevitably created by these readings – and by the lectures and classroom discussions that go with them.
Is all this nonsense, as Andrew Delbanco and others claim, on its way out? To judge by the NAS study’s findings, no. On the contrary, as older faculty members retire, the problem is just getting worse and worse. Only among the older cohort at UT and A&M do you find a significant number of professors whose research is focused on such areas as political, diplomatic, and military history; the “research” by their younger colleagues, by and large, is focused on RCG – and much of it, unless the junior history faculty at UT and A&M are radically different from their counterparts elsewhere around the country, doesn’t deserve to be described as research at all, but rather as an endless recycling of now-familiar academic clichés about group power and oppression.
“A history department too narrow or monolithic in its course offerings or views,” observe the NAS researchers with (again) admirable restraint, “can intellectually shortchange its students and faculty.” I would go just a teensy bit further: to use the materials named in this report to “teach” American history is to deliberately reject the job of informing and educating students. It is to stunt their intellects – to deliberately deny them important knowledge and insights. It is, indeed, to stuff their heads with propaganda, in much the way that the Maoists did in their re-education camps during the Cultural Revolution. All of which is to say that the curricula outlined in the NAS’s sobering report are not about history, but about ideology; not about education, but about indoctrination. America’s kids – and America’s future – deserve better.
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