Herbert London: The National Association of Scholars Report on American History

Jan 23, 2013

Although conservatives reflexively assume race, class and gender dominate American history, there is now incontrovertible evidence that this assumption is true.  In a careful study of U.S. history courses at the University of Texas and Texas A & M University, the National Association of Scholars recently released report indicates that race, class and gender tend to crowd out the teaching of other perspectives.  This form of thematically skewed teaching leads to an incomplete knowledge of American history, an ignorance transmitted from one generation to the next.

Eighty three percent of the U.T. faculty members teaching these courses received their PhD’s in the 1990’s or later and had race, class and gender (RCG) research interests.  Hence it is hardly surprising that 78 percent of U.T.  faculty members were high assigners of readings in these three areas.  Moreover, an inordinate focus on RCG isn’t the only problem since this emphasis subordinates other aspects of the national history.  In these general American history courses, key documents from the past such as the Mayflower Compact or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address were not assigned.  Only one faculty member assigned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and only one assigned Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville.

Even though the study was restricted to two Texas institutions, I feel confident in asserting that other universities share similar characteristics of narrow specialization and a failure to provide broad coverage.  It should hastily be noted that RCG are important topics that deserve a place in the history curriculum.  The issue, however, is that the strong emphasis, alas the overarching emphasis, on these themes does not do justice to the depth and complexity of our national history.

In fact, diversity of informed opinion to which universities give lip-service, makes institutions of higher learning a place of genuine scholarship.  When the study becomes monolithic and narrow, students are intellectually shortchanged and the appreciation of history as a discipline is skewed by political ideology.

NAS researchers didn’t merely examine the evidence, they proposed several sensible recommendations.  First, perhaps foremost, a review of the curriculum is called for, one that is objective and fair-minded. Two, hiring committees should take into account the need for a broad narrative of American history.  Three, essential readings should be considered as part of the curriculum review with an emphasis on diversification. Four, state legislatures responsible for underwriting colleges and universities should demand transparency.  Review and oversight do not in turn lead to a violation of academic freedom provisions.  Last, these American history courses implicitly and sometimes explicitly suggest universities have drifted from their main mission.  Increasingly these instructors think of themselves as reformers eager to eliminate prejudice and bigotry.  However, when university programs consider it their responsibility to atone for or redress impressions of the past, history becomes a tool of ideological manipulation.  While the struggle between the downtrodden and rooted injustice is one dimension of our history, it, in itself, doesn’t convey the whole story.

Most Americans are understandably disconcerted by the gap between the credentials of college graduates and what they actually know.  Students may believe they have studied American history, but in many instances, they acquired a prejudicial view of America, one that perverts evidence and the canons of scholarship.  All too often courses at U.T. and Texas A&M favor one kind of historical study:  one that emphasizes race, class and gender and deemphasizes other approaches such as political, intellectual, economic, diplomatic or military history.

In pointing out this obvious ideological bias, the NAS has not only performed a service for the taxpayers of Texas, but to all Americans who wonder why the balance in American history has been undermined by the self appointed professors of reform.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).

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