Reject easy ideas

A National Association of Scholars report published Jan. 9 concluded that introductory U.S. and Texas history courses at UT and A&M are overly focused on themes of race, gender and class. “I’d like to see the Texas Legislature amend the legislation that requires students to take a year of American history and amend it by putting in provisions and oversight in review to make sure the courses being offered to meet the requirement actually meet the requirement,” Peter Wood, president of NAS and a co-author of the report, told the Texan.

Among the NAS report’s recommendations were for historians to “publish better textbooks” and for UT and A&M to “hire new faculty members who have a solid understanding of the broad narrative of American history.” If Texas legislators run their fingers down UT professors’ syllabi as the NAS president hopes, it would not be the first time in the school’s history that those in the Capitol (and the UT System Regents) abused their down-the-street proximity to decide who may teach what books and subjects in our classrooms. Throughout the 20th century, UT professors have been called in to defend themselves against accusations of radical economic beliefs like communism and to justify their choices of literature to teach. 

But before the lawmakers act today, they should consider the gaping deficiencies in the NAS study. It relies upon data from only two sources: the syllabi and curricula vitae of UT and A&M professors  (18 at UT) who happened to teach introductory U.S. and Texas history courses in fall 2010. A 2009 Texas law mandated that professors’ syllabi and CVs be available on a public university’s website within three clicks from the home page  to facilitate exactly this kind of examination. The NAS researchers went chart-happy. Beyond lists of names, the researchers compiled lists of “RCG” books — those that the researchers deemed focus on race, class and gender. They sent the specimen list to the American Textbook Council and asked that organization to analyze the predominate themes in the textbooks.  The researchers sent a list of non-textbooks to a reviewer who was “given a coding sheet with all reading assignments on them and instructions to code all readings into as many categories as he thought reasonable.”

More coding ensued. And Excel document-making. The allegedly agenda-driven professors and their race, class and gender-focused books were put into one of 11 categories: diplomatic and international relations history, economic and business history, military history, philosophical and intellectual history, political history, religious history, scientific, environmental and technological history, social history with gender emphasis and social history with racial history—other. 

Courses such as “Mexican American Women 1910 to Present” and “Race and Revolution” exclude key documents like the Mayflower Compact, Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

When the Texan asked Wood if he knew most students who attended Texas public schools had covered those documents to the letter in 11th grade American history, Wood replied, “That wasn’t the subject of our examination.”

Other considerations that were excluded from the NAS report: what the professors said to students about the books they assigned, and, for that matter, what the students who took the courses learned about those texts. Why was that information omitted? The researchers did not, in the course of their study, ever talk to Texas history professors or Texas college students, or visit a classroom in Austin or College Station.

UT history professor H.W. Brands’ American history textbook was lauded in the study. Nonetheless, Brands disagrees with its conclusions and describes how  knowing what book was assigned while ignoring other material that may have been covered outside of a textbook could lead to problematic oversight. “I think that everyone ought to read Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. It has driven history, but to make the naïve assumption that I am promoting it is absurd,” Brands said.

The report betrays not an interest in objectivity but calculated sloppiness. From a scientific perspective — which the report makes claims to — it was never peer-reviewed and it describes its specimens (our professors) using language like “all too often” or “inordinate.” It refers to “categories well-established in the discipline” without citation. It neglects to address the fact that 35 percent of the surveyed courses are specialty courses often dealing with race, class and gender specifically but does not subtract this data from the rest, driving RCG counts when the average across all courses are taken. It never provides any framework for how the textbooks were assessed. The study itself cost $15,750 to produce. Twelve contributors funded the study with gifts ranging between $100 to $5000. Among them were UT alumni and former professors.

What the study never says explicitly is that its objection to race, class and gender is not due to those themes’ supposed overabundance in course syllabi but the fact that viewing history through those perspectives puts important figures in an unflattering light. “From the perspective of these people, students are not getting the same history they did,” said Brands, who was judged in the study to be a “limited assigner” of race, class and gender. But understanding American history from the perspective of race, class and gender teaches us facts that help us understand how far we’ve come as a nation. In many ways, this country’s primary ideological contribution to the world is the ability to transcend race, class and gender strictures that inhibited our ancestors without ignoring them altogether. To suggest that students are incapable of understanding that complexity is insulting. Perhaps the NAS authors don’t understand that themselves. After all, theirs is an organization committed to intellectual freedom, but one that also contradictorily argues for the Legislature to step in and choose the books professors teach.  

Ultimately, the study offers a false dichotomy between military, religious and political history and race, class and gender history. The NAS authors perceive themselves as a counterbalance to prevailing liberal thinking, when they themselves, veiled behind a quasi-quantative analysis, are simply seeking a narrow view of history, just as they believe the professors they target do. The historical framework their study suggests provide an understanding of American history that is limiting. It is those kinds of oversimplified ideas, no matter which political inclination they are rooted in, that we urge UT students not to accept.