This week the Texas legislature is kicking off its 83rd session in Austin. The funding of public education in the state will be a hot topic as it always is, but this session, the content of public education will be worth a look. The National Association of Scholars today released the findings of a study into the contents of university-level history teaching at two of Texas’ (and the nation’s) most highly regarded public universities, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University, in Bryan-College Station.
Specifically, the NAS looked at the syllabi and reading assignments of classes at both universities, in 85 sections of lower-division American history courses. These classes covered the state requirement, passed by the legislature in 1971, that all undergraduate students at Texas public institutions take two American history courses. What the NAS study found is very disturbing.
The study found that U.S. history courses at both universities strongly emphasize race, class, and gender (RCG) in reading requirements. Fully 78% of faculty members at UT emphasize race, class, and gender, while 50% of faculty members at Texas A&M do the same. Likewise, 78% of UT professors have special research interests in RCG, while 64% at A&M do too.
The study contends that the strong emphasis on RCG crowds out other relevant themes in American history, such as the nation’s intellectual, military, spiritual, and economic history. The emphasis on RCG studies also influences a further narrowing of history subject matter and the tailoring of “special topics” courses, which omit the use of significant primary source documents. These narrowed-focus classes, the study finds, “seem to exist mainly to allow faculty members to teach their special interests.”
The effect: Students at two of Texas’ flagship universities are not being assigned to study such important and influential milestones as the Mayflower Compact or President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. “Only one faculty member,” the study finds, “assigned the ‘Letter from a Birmingham jail’” or Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Major historical figures, from John Dewey to Alexander Graham Bell to Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers, are increasingly being left out of American history courses at both universities. The result of this is that we are losing touch with our history, replacing it with an overemphasis on grievances.
“These trends extend beyond the two flagship Texas universities,” the study report says. “History departments at other universities around the United States share similar characteristics, such as faculty members’ narrow specializations; high emphasis on race, class, and gender; exclusion of key concepts; and failure to provide broad coverage of U.S. history.”
The National Association of Scholars proposes 10 remedies to correct the imbalance of U.S. history teaching in universities. Those remedies include instituting external reviews to ensure that professors are not narrowing history classes down to their particular field of interest, and depoliticizing the teaching of history. “Historians and professors of United States history should counter mission creep by returning to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.”
As you probably know, I majored in history. I can attest to the fact that there is a whole lot of it out there. No one person can possibly learn it all. If you have 85 different sections of lower division United States history, some of those will be very narrowly focused.
We teach history in K-12 schools. Then we teach it again in college. Even so, most people don’t seem to retain very much of it. Part of the reason for that is we teach it so badly. History is not about memorizing a bunch of names and dates. It’s our story. It tells us who we are and how we got here.
All college students should take the basic two semesters of U.S. history survey class to get a basic knowledge of the chronology and major events from colonization up to the present. After they have acquired a basic knowledge of U.S. history they should take a few semesters of some more narrowly focused history courses.
Everything has a history. Geology and geography are the history of the Earth. You can study the history of math and science. I once attended a lecture on the history of eucalyptus trees in California, and believe it or not it was a lot more interesting than it sounds.
History textbooks tell us that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. But the important fact there is not who or when, it’s what, why and how. It doesn’t really matter who invented the cotton gin. The exact year it was invented isn’t important either. The thing that matters is what a cotton gin is, why it was important and how it affected history.
Part of teaching history is making it real. I was born in 1960. I will turn 53 years old this April. Imagine if I had been born in 1860 instead.
There would be some similarities. I would have been born at the beginning of a war that traumatized the nation. I would have been a young child when a president was assassinated. I would have lived to witness a stolen presidential election. I would have turned 53 in 1913 – a very different time from when I was born. If I made it into my 70′s I would have witnessed WWI, the Roaring 20′s, prohibition and the Great Depression.
Now imagine if I lived through that same era, but I was a woman or a black man. I would have lived through the same era, but I probably would have had very different experiences. That’s what learning history is all about.