In Report, Texas University History Departments Face Scrutiny

10 Jan

In Report, University History Departments Face Scrutiny
by Reeve Hamilton, The Texas Tribune, http://texastribune.org/

At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, three conservative groups — the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the National Association of Scholars and the Texas Association of Scholars — will release a sure-to-be controversial report alleging that the University of Texas and Texas A&M University offer students “a less-than-comprehensive picture of history.”

The report’s rollout is part of a three-day policy orientation by the TPPF, an Austin-based think tank that has been tied to some of the state’s most hotly-debated proposed higher education reforms. It signals a renewed push to reconsider the course offerings in the history departments of the state’s public universities, and particularly to boost the number of courses dedicated to the study Western Civilization.

Jeremi Suri, a prominent historian at UT who has already read the report, called it disappointing.

“I have a lot of respect for the National Association of Scholars. They spend a lot of time defending free speech, and I’m a big believer in free speech, but this report is just so off base. It’s just not accurate.”

Written by Richard Fonte, the former director of the We the People program at the National Endowment for the Humanities, the study examined the background of professors and the syllabi for 85 courses offered in the fall of 2010 that could have counted toward the state’s requirement that students at public institutions take two American history classes.

“We found that all too often the course readings gave strong emphasis to race, class and gender 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),” Fonte wrote.

He contended that the prevalence of so-called “RCG” — race, class and gender — assignments was more of an issue at UT than at A&M. He determined that too many courses were highly specialized, and also noted that major historical figures were being overlooked at both universities, with only rare mentions of “Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Dewey, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas A. Edison, the Wright brothers or the scientists of the Manhattan Project.”

Thomas Lindsay, the director of the TPPF’s Center for Higher Education, said in a statement that his organization “is pleased to be a part of launching this study, which will help universities and administrators to return to teaching American history in its fullness.”

“Strengthening the teaching of American history, government, and Western Civilization is at the very core of our recommendations for reform,” he added.

In December, Lindsay was among the authors of a TPPF report that suggested that “university regents and other administrators should be encouraged to institute reforms that place more focus on teaching students basic American history, government, economics, and Western Civilization, whether through a standardized test or more course options/requirements.”

This new report recommends that the universities have their curriculum reviewed, hire new faculty members with broader interests, make sure survey courses remain broad in scope and “depoliticize history.” The report will be given to the leadership at the universities.

“We hope that they will read it and consider it instead of judging it without reading it,” said Ashley Thorne, director for the study of the curriculum at the National Association of Scholars.

She acknowledged that the group is accustomed to taking controversial stances, including a strong opposition to affirmative action, which UT recently defended before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Suri said the UT history program has a strong emphasis in military, political and diplomatic history; some on the left argue it’s too strong, he added.

Suri, author of Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama, said that departmental focus was one of the primary reasons he came to UT. He said the report makes no mention of a new university center focused on diplomacy and national security, or of the Normandy Scholars program, which offers students an intense focus on World War II and is one of UT’s signature offerings.

“There is political correctness in the academic world, and academics — like people in any field — tend to follow fashions and trends. And sometimes that’s a problem,” he said. “But that’s not a problem with the teaching of history in this department. They just chose the wrong thing.”

Fonte said he anticipated that the university would defend itself against his findings and acknowledged that the report makes assumptions about courses based on their assigned readings. Suri argues that an accurate understanding of the nature of a course requires more involvement than merely a review of the syllabus from a single semester.

“Come sit in, come engage us, if you really care,” Suri said, extending the same invitation to curious legislators.

Anxiety about the history curriculum at Texas public universities is nothing new for state legislators. One of the most memorable debates on the House floor during the 82nd legislative session occurred when state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, proposed an amendment requiring that universities dedicate 10 percent of their courses to instruction in “Western Civilization.”

The amendment failed, in part because of his inability to articulate his motivation for offering it.

When Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, pressed him on what he meant by “Western Civilization,” Christian provided the following response:

Similarly frustrated with Christian’s responses to questions about whether the abolitionist movement or Native American studies would be included in the requirement, state Rep. Raphael Anchia, D-Dallas, publicly speculated that the motivation behind the amendment was “very political and potentially insulting,” and argued that UT and other universities should be “free from this type of manipulation and political statement on the House floor.”

Christian will not be returning this session; he lost his bid for re-election. But Thursday’s press conference is a strong indication that his proposal — or something resembling it — might.

Lindsay told the Tribune that he did not think the discussion should be as contentious as it was in the previous session. “This transcends any party differences,” he said. “Democracy is not a gift. It’s something that each generation has to earn, and the current generation must teach to the up and coming generation.”

As for race, class, and gender, both Lindsay and Fonte said those topics should be taught, but with less of an emphasis than they believe currently exists.

“Those are all aspects of American history,” Lindsay said. “Students should be introduced to all of them, because you want students to have a broad understanding of American history.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://trib.it/VU1Cql.

One Response to “In Report, Texas University History Departments Face Scrutiny”

  1. Richard Fonte January 14, 2013 at 12:23 AM #

    The University of Texas response to the National Association of Scholars report misses the fundamental focus of the study-How is the University of Texas implementing the 1971 law requiring graduates to complete two semester of American History to graduate.
    The focus is on the thousands of students fulfilling this requirement to acquire a higher level of understanding of America’s past rather than on the hundreds who may be seeking a history degree. At the University of Texas the focus was on those taking the introductory survey American History courses.
    Yet, for the vast majority of undergraduates who are not history majors the one and only association with American History occurs in the required courses that fulfill the 1971 law. It is in these required courses that the NAS study found significant and problematic differences between the University of Texas and Texas A&M. In particular, at UT, students had less reading assignments that concentrated on diplomatic and military history than those at A&M and had more limited assignment of important primary sources documents. This difference existed even though the study allowed reading assignments to be classified in more than one categorical theme.
    Moreover, the use of “special topic courses” that covered only social history themes and excluded significant exposure to other themes further diminished the scope of what these non-major undergraduates covered in their assignments. This commitment to focus on narrow special topics courses has been a continuing approach used by the University unlike Texas A&M. While we examined the fall of 2010 in the study, a follow-up review of the class schedule for every following semester found special topic courses focusing exclusively on social history themes rather than military, diplomatic or intellectual history. However, we would not find that a satisfactory solution—the addition of special topic classes in military history, for example. In fact, the report was critical of the use of a naval history special topic course at Texas A&M.
    We believe that the 1971 law intended for non-history majors to have the opportunity to survey American History covering a full-range of themes beyond social history. The NAS study believes that social History focused on race, gender and class has a very appropriate role in the study of American History. It is simply not possible to study American History properly without covering these themes. We also recognize that such themes can be intertwined with other themes. For example, as your statement acknowledges we believe that Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas are important texts and we classified these texts as having a racial theme, but also as intellectual history. However, we would not expect that these themes would consume 78% of all the reading assignments at the University of Texas. In stark contrast, about one-half of reading assignments reflected these themes at A&M.
    When some social history themes are emphasized over other equally important themes, we believe students are being short-changed and not receiving a comprehensive overview of American History. We do believe that this can and should be addressed. For example, we found that those faculty members that used anthologies with multiple readings provided students far more opportunity to read key political and intellectual history documents than those who did not use such an approach.
    Rather than simply reject the findings of the NAS report, we urge the university to address the identified problem and increase opportunities for the non-history major to receive a broad and comprehensive picture of American History, warts and all.
    Richard Fonte, Researcher
    National Association of Scholars

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