Earlier this month, the National Association of Scholars released a report on history instruction at the University of Texas and Texas A&M (full disclosure: Wick Allison, TAC‘s president, donated to the project). Examining reading assignments for courses that satisfied the universities’ state-mandated requirements for U.S. history, the studies authors tried to figure out what students are actually being taught. Their main conclusion:

…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 students a less-than-comprehensive picture of U.S. history.

As conservative critiques often do, this report has provoked a response from the higher ed guild. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, James Grossman and Elaine Carey argue in characteristic academic fashion that the study oversimplifies a complex reality.

One complaint is that there’s more to teaching than reading assignments. That’s something of a cheap shot, as the study explicitly acknowledges this limitation. What’s more, Grossman and Carey can’t possibly mean to suggest that the focus of college courses is so independent of their reading lists that we can’t make any judgements about their content from the syllabus. If it is, the problem at America’s colleges and universities is more serious than NAS dares to suggest.

Grossman and Carey’s real beef, however, is that the categorization of some readings seems reductive:

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.

More broadly, the historians contend that race, class, and gender:

…are not discrete subjects of study. They constitute overlapping categories that historians have, over the past two generations, built into conceptual frameworks capable of taking into account how individuals fit into meaningful social categories. In the authors’ zeal to pigeonhole the faculty and the scholarship under review, they confuse “topics” with the useful concepts that enable historians to weave a more nuanced and comprehensive view of the past and the dynamics of historical change.

Grossman and Carey appear to misunderstand the study’s methodology: works were identified as emphasizing race, class, and gender themes, but this was not considered exclusive of other content. Nevertheless, some of the classifications do seem crude. Consider the biography to which Grossman and Carey allude, Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation. Sure it’s about race and class. That’s because it’s a case study of the colonial Southern elite–a perfectly reasonable topic for a U.S. history course. 

In defending the Texas courses, however, Grossman and Carey miss the real point of the NAS study. The argument is not that any particular work focusing on race, class, and gender is inappropriate. Rather, it’s that many students receive their only college-level instruction in American history from courses and sources that devote minimal attention to its central events, figures, and ideas. Grossman and Carey are much concerned with defending the richness of “historical scholarship and the collaborative ethos of historians who work in different fields and see the past in different ways.” They have little to say about what students ought to know.

This assertion of professorial autonomy would be less disturbing if students arrived at college with a thorough grounding in the basics. According to the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, however, only 12 percent of high school seniors were proficient in history. That means most college students lack the knowledge even to begin developing the ”nuanced and comprehensive view of the past and the dynamics of historical change” with which Grossman and Carey credit social history. The New York Times reported that only 2 percent of high school seniors could identify the issue involved in Brown v. Board of Education. By the way, the question included a quote from the decision.

The smart criticism of introductory courses that give short shrift to diplomacy, war, and legislation, then, isn’t that they’re politically biased. Rather, it’s that they tend to elevate the research interests of scholars over the educational needs of undergraduates, particularly non-majors who may have no other exposure to the subject. Opponents of old-fashioned methods have a point: there is more to American history than why Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, how Washington asserted executive power, or when Lee was defeated at Gettysburg. But students won’t learn much from scholars who “broaden and deepen” their focus, as Grossman and Carey put it, before they are taught to identify the elephants in the room.