An Undisciplined Report on the Teaching of History

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

January 28, 2013

Historians welcome informed debate. It is precisely what attracted many of us to the discipline in the first place. Thus our initial reaction to a recent report by the National Association of Scholars, "Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?," was to engage the ideas, explore the research model, and open a conversation about different ways of understanding history. This report, however, does not contribute to informed debate.


The Obsession With Social History

The report's main arguments are largely true, says Richard Pells, a historian who taught for 40 years at the University of Texas.

"Recasting History" presents itself as a detailed study of lower-level history courses at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University­—and by extension at colleges and universities across the nation. Its critique is straightforward: "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 the institutions frequently offered students a less-than-comprehensive picture of U.S. history." The report condemns "narrow, specialized, and ideologically partisan approaches, largely driven by faculty research agendas."

Any historian who writes or teaches about the dynamics of power in a context that includes black people is understood by this report to be interested exclusively in "race," American slavery being merely a "racial" topic with little of consequence for political, intellectual, religious, diplomatic, or military history.

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.

The Great Depression, too, falls into the "class" category, as any study of that period will by definition focus exclusively on workers and employers rather than on banking, politics, and diplomacy, not to mention the history of ideas or politics.

This all seemed at first glance odd, tendentious, and uninformed. Upon careful reading, it turned out to be that and worse. Despite its denunciation of "ideologically partisan approaches," the report itself is based on an idiosyncratic and ideologically driven taxonomy of the books, articles, and syllabi of historians, compiled with little knowledge of the scholarly literature and even less inclination to engage historians in serious conversation about our work.

Although ostensibly analyzing how American history is taught at two universities, the authors neither attended classes nor spoke with instructors. They did not examine lectures, in-class activities, or audiovisual presentations; their report signals no knowledge of digital materials or discussions, assignments, or examinations. The document tells us little about teaching or learning; it merely surveys reading assignments, many of which the authors seem to have either not read or not understood. Moreover, they assume that to the extent that faculty members focus on so-called RCG subjects, they necessarily sacrifice coverage of broader themes in American history.

A "course" is never simply a set of readings. This report fails to consider how instructors design their classes, integrating lectures with readings and various other assignments, presentations, and discussions. Instead, the authors erroneously assume that the percentage of readings dealing with a particular topic mirrors the proportion of overall course time devoted to that theme.

The authors use the acronym "RCG" as shorthand for a kind of social history that they believe presents "a constrained version of the past." They list 11 more-traditional subfields in American history to argue that a growing majority of faculty ignore or neglect those subfields in favor of "broad content categories" delineated by race, class, and gender. But those subfields 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.

The enemy at the door in this report is the commitment shared by historians of nearly all stripes to expand traditional categories of historical analysis. In the past, the study of U.S. history focused almost exclusively on white Protestant men of standing—the political campaigns they waged, the wars they fought, the treaties they negotiated. Today historians offer an enriched tapestry, and one that helps us to better understand the dynamics of change.

Military and diplomatic historians now consider the implications of their work for the study of gender, and the implications of gender for understanding military leaders and their troops. Intellectual historians examine the writings of all sorts of people, regardless of class, gender, or race. Civil War historians study the home front and the process of emancipation rather than accepting outdated references to Lincoln's freeing the slaves all by himself—a notion plainly belied by the primary sources we read and assign.

By freezing in historiographical time what the authors consider 11 clearly delineated subfields of American history and then underestimating the extent to which those subfields overlap with one another and with new historical insights, the report betrays a limited understanding of the nature of historical scholarship and the collaborative ethos of historians who work in different fields and see the past in different ways.

Just how little the authors know about history as a discipline is casually betrayed by this sort of detail: a course called "The United States and Africa" is designated as a "racial" topic. Is that because Africans south of the Sahara are black? Would "The United States and Europe" be categorized under "race"? What about "The History of Inter-American Relations"?

The report concludes with a claim that "our findings in this study shed light on a source of Americans' increasing ignorance about their own history." We share the National Association of Scholars' concern over Americans' limited knowledge of "their own history" (not to speak of the history beyond our borders). It is not clear, however, that Americans knew more about the past before historians began to broaden and deepen their focus; the report assumes this rather than demonstrates it.

Many Americans once "knew" about the Civil War because they had watched Gone With the Wind. They might have "known" that George Washington's character was rooted in a tale about a cherry tree. They knew very little about the roles of their own ancestors in shaping the American landscape, literal and cultural. Our students learn many of the same things that their predecessors were taught, but they also know aspects of our past that help them to understand themselves and their families as makers, and not just students, of history.

James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association. Elaine Carey is vice president for the Teaching Division of the association and chair of the history department at St. John's University, in New York.