We know, axiomatically, how it is with victors in one cause and another—they claim the spoils and write the history; in the latter case, untangling heroism from villainy, assigning significance to the outcomes, defining challenges still to come.
Why wonder (to the extent anyone does these days) that from many a seat in the modern classroom, America seems strikingly different from the star-spangled nation generally on view during—oh, I don’t know, the early ‘60s might do as point of departure. That was the era in which I occupied my own seat in the history classrooms of the University of Texas (currently called, due to system expansion, the University of Texas-Austin).
A few years after my graduation, with a history B.A., followed by study at Stanford for the history Master of Arts, came the tempests and upheavals of the Vietnam war-counterculture era, whose victors were… guess who?
No point leaving readers in suspense. A study by the National Association of Scholars, an organization of counter-countercultural academics in various disciplines, dedicated to “the tradition of reasoned scholarship and civil debate,” raises the timely question, “Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?,” meaning history as presently taught on college campuses. The verdict as rendered would appear to be yes; unquestionably; positively.
Race, class, and gender (formerly spelled “s-e-x”) appear to be undermining the narrative of America we once upon a time received as coherent and connected: the story of disparate colonies welding themselves into a nation of largely positive achievements, with a generally positive vision of itself and its place in the world. The newly emerging narrative concerns a nation of far more complex origins and ambitions than formerly taught, harder to understand and interpret, with darker corners, lacking the old teleology, the old sense of purpose and fulfillment.
I beg the reader: hold it right there. What’s wrong, from the standpoint of scholarship, with complexities and dark, or just darkish, corners? Is there no right or need to study and know about such? I plan to return to this matter. Meanwhile, what did the NAS report—titled “Recasting History”—actually do and say?
Quite a bit. A team of NAS-affiliated scholars singled out one of my alma maters—UT—and its formidable academic rival Texas A&M University for a detailed study of institutional responses to a 1971 state law meant to spread and entrench historical knowledge among students at publicly funded colleges and universities. I invite contemplation of the date—1971, when countercultural rage at “fascist pig Amerika” was all the rage. Lawmakers thought it sensible, even moral, to require six semester hours in American or Texas history for graduation from a publicly funded college or university. A certain kind of instruction, I can only assume at this chronological remove, was implied. To put it in simplest terms, the teaching of fascist pig Amerikan history was out.
In 2013, UT and A&M continue to enforce the legislative requirement, through survey courses but also, as options, certain specialized classes. So far so good. But what comes after “so far” turns out not to be very good at all, according to the report. When NAS researchers looked at the courses, the reading lists, and the research interests of the teachers, they saw that
all too often the course readings gave strong emphasis to race, class, or gender (RCG) social history, an emphasis so strong that it diminished the attention given to other subjects in American history (such as military, diplomatic, religious, intellectual history). The result is that these institutions frequently offered a less-than-comprehensive picture of U.S. history.
The researchers found that “78 percent of UT faculty members were high assigners of RCG readings.” By contrast, just 50 percent of A&M faculty assigned similar readings. Hmmmm. Could it be, this sort of emphasis came naturally to certain faculty members? So one might think. “More recent Ph.D.s,” says the report, “are more likely to focus research on race, class, and gender. 83 percent of UT faculty members teaching these courses who received their Ph.D.s in the 90s or later had RCG research interests,” versus just 67 percent of UT faculty members who got their doctorates in the ’70s and ’80s. At A&M the imbalance was more pronounced yet. Nine in 10 of the ’90s Ph.D.’s who were scrutinized “had RCG research interests.” Not so the ’70s and ’80s contingent, just 36 percent of whom were attached.
A good thing? A bad thing? Which, or what? According to the NAS report:
As RCG emphases crowd out other aspects and themes in American history, we find other problems setting in, including the narrow tailoring of ‘special topics’ courses and the absence of significant primary source documents [e.g., Tocqueville, the Mayflower Compact, the Federalist Papers]. Special topics courses used by students to fulfill the history requirement lack historical breadth; they seem to exist mainly to allow faculty members to teach their special interests.
They threaten, accordingly, to give race, class, and gender issues “precedence over all others.”
Here, precisely, we get down to brass tacks. “What did you learn?” is the basic end-of-semester question for whoever completes a course of any sort, having earned a grade of any kind. What you learn, almost inevitably—putting aside the possibility of a rare personal obsession with the impartial acquisition of knowledge—is what you soaked up in the classroom or imbibed from assigned readings. The authors of the NAS report apply the principle to American history: “for most students”—i.e., non-history majors—“these courses provide the only exposure they will ever get to college-level American history…” What do they learn from a course heavy on racial considerations? They learn about race. And from a course on “gender”? Uh-huh. And so on. They grasp inadequately, if at all, in the report’s words, “the larger political conflicts, institutional frameworks, and philosophic ideals that have governed the course of American history”—hardly what Texas legislators could have had in mind four decades ago when they came up with and imposed the U. S. history requirement.
A few illustrations. During the 2010 fall semester—the period covered by the NAS study—UT offered, in fulfillment of the U.S. history requirement, “History of Mexican Americans in the U.S.,” “Introduction to American Studies,” “Black Power Movement,” “Mexican-American Women, 1910–Present,” “Race and Revolution,” and “The United States and Africa.”
Among reading assignments at UT: “Africanisms in American Culture,” “Chicana Feminist Thought,” “Lakota Woman,” “Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam,” “The Shawnees and the War for America,” “When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in Colonial New Mexico, 1500–1800”—shall I go on?
It occurred to the NAS researchers that some modest reforms in the curriculum might not go amiss. The report calls for, inter alia, hiring faculty “with a broader range of research interests,” and designing better courses, not to mention basically depoliticizing history. A&M, in the critique, fared better—largely, I would bet, due to its more military-agrarian culture. (The school was founded as Texas Agricultural & Mechanical College. Until the 1960s of baneful memory every student belonged to the Corps of Cadets.) Snootier, livelier UT, in the state’s capital city, has long assumed it was of a different order entirely from the Farmers at Aggieland, privileged by nature to take chances, to flaunt its intellectual stuff.
The history faculty during my own time at UT—the early to late ’60s—wore their liberalism lightly, such liberalism as actually pertained to them, which was of a generally genial sort. I said, laughingly, to my “U. S. Since 1865” teacher, who had become a jovial sparring partner: “Are you going to grade my paper as a liberal, or as a fair man?” I got a good laugh from him—and an “A” to boot. There were even conservatives in the department. O.H. Radkey, an acclaimed expert on the Soviet Union, was staunchly anticommunist; he liked referring to FDR as “that American president reputed to be great.”
It was another day, another age, as UT’s pushback against the NAS report quickly made clear. Why didn’t NAS just call for stringing up the history faculty from lampposts? A serious, meticulous, carefully crafted report got no more respect at UT than it would have if accompanied by just such a summons to retribution.
Ka-BOOM! The student newspaper went after NAS for insulting students fully able, thank you, to appreciate the complexity of American history. The university itself called the report “narrowly defined and largely inaccurate,” bestowing no attention on how the report had been narrowly framed to test compliance with a legislative mandate nor acknowledging that the university’s own website had provided all the information. Never mind: “Teaching race, class, and gender topics,” UT went on, “… helps broaden our understanding of American society by adding new voices and perspectives to the American story.”
NAS had acknowledged as much, the point of the report being to counsel against examining the superstructure of history by recent demographic add-ons. What if you don’t understand the architecture of the whole on account of overemphasizing new and comparatively unconventional features? Would it not help to have some understanding of the processes by which even societies founded on the dead ideas of dead men have their origins and fruitions? Does it not help to know how we got to such-and-such a place under such-and-such circumstances? You would not suppose so to hear the academic yowlers, angry at criticism, fearful of seeing their loves and attachments fall from present favor.
The academic ladies and gentleman don’t want discussion, it appears. That would be too much like free speech. What they want is the rostrum to announce their contempt for those who don’t see things exactly as they themselves see them.
The possibility of driving race and women’s rights away into academic obscurity is the merest joke. Who wants to displace vital knowledge? On the other hand, isn’t that what goes right now, from the other direction? “Broadly integrative approaches to core subjects and comprehensive surveys have been displaced by narrow, specialized, and ideologically partisan approaches, largely driven by faculty research agendas.” Such was the burden of NAS’s criticism, from which UT recoils as from a snake.
Upon the authors of the report, UT’s alumni association sicced a professor named Jeremi Suri, who proceeded to come emotionally unglued. He called the report “frankly dumb”—a sovereign judgment he managed to form and administer in advance of the report’s actual release. (Whoever said historians’ eyes are forever trained on objects to their rear?) It appeared to Suri, an international affairs scholar, newly arrived at UT from Wisconsin, that NAS was demanding “a simple and one-sided history of just a few people”—a point NAS had gone out of its way to refute in the unreleased report concerning whose contents Suri seemed so intimately informed. In an exchange on the alum association’s blog with NAS’s Richard Fonte, Suri, in characteristically open-minded fashion, ripped the “reckless and self-serving critics” who seem to populate our country’s history, “most of whom ended as discredited malcontents.” “What is driving this report?”, Suri demanded of Fonte. “Why should we believe a word you say?”
Because it might be true? Or worth a moment of conversation? What about just worth hearing for the sake of exposure to a contrasting viewpoint?
A UT-educated attorney, who for some odd reason found Suri’s language “offensive and intolerant,” responded on the same blog: “As the first native born American son of immigrants, I have no desire to see American history taught solely as an homage to dead white males. But dead white males and the texts they crafted had the predominant role in the nation’s founding and for much of its history,” creating “an adaptable system that has provided countless millions of immigrants opportunity.”
The ’60s, the ’60s! The sheer nuttiness of the age! The credulousness of 50- and 60-year-olds today, conditioned by the zeitgeist to see the American procession as shaped by the crafts and wiles of dead, slave-owning, probably wife-beating patriarchs! The desire to relaunch the narrative—start telling people what America’s really all about! A survivor of the ’60s thinks, and fears, that’s what mainly goes on here.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t go on just at Texas’s two major public universities. The infection is pretty widespread. As, ironically, a retired University of Texas professor of intellectual history, Richard Pells, wrote soon after the report came out. “These issues,” he said in an op-ed column for the Austin American-Statesman, “are by no means unique to UT—they describe the situation at most history departments in America ever since the 1960s and 1970s.”
I should think pretty much everyone by now knows academia to be in the grip of aging ’60s types who manage, by sheer power likely as not—power over promotion, power over tenure, power over grants and sabbaticals—to set the tone among younger scholars. The obsessions of the ’60s types are race, class, and gender, as was the case 40 years ago. The mainspring idea is that the sins of the pre-counterculture United States, dominated by clueless white males, should be eradicated, that the former victims (including those unborn when the original offenses were committed) should be made whole somehow, at any rate through having their “stories” told by the academic bien-pensants, the enlightened ones.
How can anyone criticize such a goal? Hence what Professor Pells calls the “almost oppressive orthodoxy and … lack of intellectual diversity among the UT history faculty.” It’s what you get when you close down discussion; when you cut off critics at the knees. Everybody believes the same. Everyone comes to love Big Brother.
I hate being hard on the University of Texas, which treated me well enough in the old days. Four generations, and multifarious members, of my family have attended school there since 1886, when the school was a mere three years old and hopes were high for general access to knowledge and wisdom. “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” according to the immortal words engraved on UT’s famous Tower. The place will survive—and more than that—even if the history department should ultimately go down the tubes, having resisted self-examination to the point of laughability. I was pleased all the same to read that Newsweek and the Daily Beast list UT among the country’s top 25 party schools—an honor to fall back on if all else fails.
William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist and longtime commentator on politics, religion, and society.