Backward Revision in the History Classroom: Yet Another Attempt

The other day, as I was procrastinating from my more important responsibilities on the internet, I was alerted to a January, 2013, study conducted by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) titled Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History? For those of you who do not know what the NAS is, its mission statement describes it as “an independent membership association of academics and others working to foster intellectual freedom and to sustain the tradition of reasoned scholarship and civil debate in America’s colleges and universities.” But if you want to truly understand the flavor of this organization, check out a list of their issues and ideals here (thank goodness they are tackling such pressing intellectual issues as “partying and hook-up culture”) and board member Irving Kristol’s attack on the “anti-capitalist aspirations” of the Left on college campuses, political correctness, and multiculturalism here.

So, basically the NAS leans pretty far to the right, needless to say. However, its regular reports and the university faculty and politicians that comprise the organization do have a significant voice, especially outside of Academe (for instance, notable NAS board members include Republican super-stars like Mr. Kristol, mentioned above, former ambassador and Reagan advisor Jeane Kirkpatrick, education activist Chester Finn, and founder Stephen Balch, who received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in 2007). So, due to the resonance of this organization in the media and in the world of politics (I’m not even completely sure if the two can be separated anymore), I did take the Recasting History study seriously, and offer my response.

In the study of history course listings, syllabi, and reading lists at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, the NAS concluded that “traditional” fields of historical analysis—military, diplomatic, and economic—are being overshadowed, and thus drowned out, by race, class, and gender based study. But are these categories of analysis so rigid that one covers up the other? Absolutely they are not; race, gender, and class are important categories of analysis in all historical fields, not just their own. In fact, diplomatic and military histories are enriched by adding race to the analysis. It is nearly impossible to conceive of an American history course on the Old South, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, or the mid-twentieth century without a combination of racial and political sources; the categories can simply not be separated. As for economic and military histories, the stakes are equally as high: how could one truly understand employment and consumption patterns without considering how gender and race affect them? And how could the history of the little-known First Battle of Saltville (an interesting Confederate victory known for the strategic importance of the town’s saltworks, number of fatalities, and complex troop movements) be complete without considering the racial motivations behind the massacre of numerous wounded black soldiers following the retreat of Federal troops? The answers to those questions are that we couldn’t understand those histories, nor would they be complete without race, gender, and class in the equation. At best, the exclusion of these modes of analysis would create what I call history-buff history (i.e. troop movements, names of key actors, and obscure facts about a location or time that holds little significance without context), and, at worst, would result in out-right white-washing of the historical record.

The only thing in the study that the NAS and I agree upon is the continued importance of history education in the modern university, but this call to move back to a form of historical inquiry that predates the 1960s is horribly misguided and antithetical to the goals of the profession. Additionally, with Texas lawmakers attempting to revise American history textbooks to “untarnish” the image of America, the increased willingness of Republican lawmakers to gut the humanities and social science departments at state universities to save money, and the president-to-president laden history and civic classes in primary schools to meet the No Child Left Behind agenda, this call to drastically revise history curriculums by cutting back race, gender, and class based analyses couldn’t come at a worse time. If anything, too many students arrive at college with inadequate knowledge of history and social studies because of shortsighted student measurement systems that promote memorizing a certain set of criteria and in turn hampering the student’s ability to problem solve and correctly analyze historical scenarios, power structures, and larger social and cultural contexts. And this is precisely why race, gender, class, and, I would argue sexuality, must not be removed, or even cut-back, in the classroom: because that’s exactly what they foster, problem solving. If the NAS is truly concerned about the teaching of history in college classrooms, then they should set politics aside (which I believe their study is more concerned with) and welcome all types of historical inquiry that seek to fill the gaps of the outdated, and unrealistic, paradigms that they are championing.

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