My new course will be titled “US History: The Awesomeness of Awesome Americans.”

May 25, 2012, 12:53 pm

Updated to add, “Hello, Paul Krugman readers!”1

“A Crisis of Competence,” which bills itself as “A Report Prepared for the Regents of the University of California by the California Association of Scholars, A Division of the National Association of Scholars,” (hereafter CAS, for short) has garnered a great deal of attention. It was, apparently, the basis for Rick Santorum’s laughably false claims that California’s universities do not teach US history – though to be fair to the report, Santorum evidently misunderstood what was in it. It was the subject of an April 1 news story (no, not an April Fool’s) in the Los Angeles Times. And it was the basis for a May 20 op-ed in the LA Times. To be fair to the LA Times, its own editorial, on April 7, was skeptical of the report, describing it as “a mélange of anecdotes.”

This is correct: the paper’s methodology is highly suspect, depending as it does on self-selected students’ complaints that the UC tilts leftward. One could with the same level of credibility cite the complaints of the self-selected students sitting in tents as evidence that the UC tilts rightward.

But the paper does worse than depend on anecdotes. At least in the case of history, it relies on tendentious readings of course titles and descriptions to dismiss a serious scholarly discipline.

The section on “History at the University of California” begins on page 43. Beginning by asking why “graduates of prestigious campuses … are so ignorant of the history of their country, and thus so ill prepared for citizenship in their society,” it continues:

A clue as to why this is happening emerges when we look at the courses in U.S. history that are offered on UC campuses. For example, at UC San Diego in the fall of 2010 nine upper division courses in American History were offered, but one looks in vain for any course that provides a connected view of the sweep of American history, and of how it came to develop so rapidly from an insignificant cluster of colonies to the nation which is economically, militarily, and culturally the most powerful and influential in the world.

Hang on, let’s stop there: do you think you just read that UCSD doesn’t offer “any course that provides a connected view of the sweep of American history”? Because you didn’t – though a hasty reader – perhaps Senator Santorum – might think he did. The complaint here is that in one particular quarter, such a course was not laid on. For after all, UCSD offers History 2ABC, “A year-long lower-division course that will provide students with a background in United States history from colonial times to the present, concentrating on social, economic, and political developments.”

So this is how the indictment of UC history starts – with the strangely inconsequential complaint that in the benighted fall quarter of 2010, one campus of the UC did not happen to be offering its US survey course.

Let’s continue:

The titles of the nine courses seem to go in a very different direction.

Wait, we have to stop again. “The titles” of the nine courses? We’re in Naomi Schaefer Riley territory, here dismissing an entire discipline by snarking at the titles of the courses. Which is to say, the CAS discussion of history is at a level that could get you fired as a blogger.

But let’s continue.

No wait, let’s not. Let’s look at that sentence again:

The titles of the nine courses seem to go in a very different direction.

They “seem” to? I know not “seems”. If you’re going to condemn an entire discipline, let’s talk about what is.

Let’s try again.

For example, History 146 has the title “Race, Riots, and Violence in the U.S.”; 139 is “African American History in the 20th century”; 156 is “American Women/American Womanhood”; 180 is “Immigration and Ethnicity in American Society”; 154 is “Western Environmental History.” When we take these offerings together, a certain negativity is hard to miss; they dwell on the nation’s faults and failures, on victimology and oppression.

They do? The first one does, for sure. Do the others? Is it the contention of the CAS that African American History in the 20th century necessarily “dwell[s] on the nation’s faults and failures, on victimology and oppression”? One might have thought that the century that saw the nation move from Jim Crow to voting rights would be the least beset by “negativity” in the long history of African Americans. Likewise “American Women/American Womanhood” – the rise of woman suffrage, women’s access to higher education, and at least the principle of equal pay for equal work. And “Immigration and Ethnicity” – again, is this dwelling on the nation’s faults and failures? Oscar Handlin would be spinning in his grave. There was a time when it was a point of pride to describe the US as a nation of immigrants.

The paper then delves a little deeper into the issue, looking at the one-sentence course descriptions. The paper notes that the Africcan American history course

describes the transformation of African America by “imperialism, migration, urbanization, desegregation, and deindustrialization.”

This sounds about right to me. I wonder how many summaries of twentieth-century African American history wouldn’t include these as major topics? In fact, the report doesn’t offer any objection to this description, it simply cites it as if by its very self it represents “the nation’s faults and failures.”

Then there’s the list of topics for American Women/American Womanhood:

a dominant ideology of womanhood…witchcraft, evangelicalism, cult of domesticity, sexuality, rise of industrial capitalism

Again, no comment in the paper, just listing. Is it really the CAS’s contention that evangelicalism, sexuality, and industrial capitalism are all among “the nation’s faults and failures”?


Naturally, the topics of “Immigration and Ethnicity” and “Environmental History” offer similar opportunities for lament about unfairness and rapacity.

Yes, these subjects offer such opportunities. So arguably do almost any historical subjects. Does the paper adduce any evidence at all – even a course description – that these courses in particular make such laments? It does not.

The paragraph concludes,

A course on “The American West” might sound as if it would be more cheerful, but the course description begins in much the same way: “Topics will include ethnicity, the environment…”

First, what kind of conservative thinks a history of the American West should be cheerful? This very paper, by the CAS, is a lament about the obvious failures in the recent history of California – which is pretty clearly part of the American West.

Second, how on earth can we say that “Topics will include ethnicity, the environment” is in any inherent way a focus on our nation’s failures? Is the CAS insisting that the history of this country’s dealings with ethnicity and the environment is a history of failure?

The paper goes on to ask,

Could this group of courses on one campus in the fall of 2010 be atypical? Let us look at a different campus and a different year: UC Santa Cruz’s American history courses in the fall of 2008. There were six upper division courses. 106B concerned Asian American History, 110D was on the Civil War, 115A was about U.S. Labor History, 121A was about African American History, 123A about U.S. Immigration History, 190 concerned Power and Culture in the U.S., “from a variety of race, class, and gender perspectives.” Here again is the familiar focus on the nation’s shortcomings, as well as on victimology and oppression, and once more there is no sign of a course on the general historical development of the country. We are evidently dealing again with a university-wide faculty culture, one which takes a highly jaundiced view of the U.S. and avoids telling its story in a way that would acknowledge its successes.

Here again, the paper’s authors have found one campus of the UC that in one quarter did not offer a survey course. And again, the paper insists that even to teach about African American history, about immigration history, about race, class, and gender, about labor, about Asian Americans – about the Civil War! – is to “focus on the nation’s shortcomings, as well as on victimology and oppression.”

For many Americans, the history of the nation’s minorities is a point of pride, as indeed is the history of the labor movement – and in fact the history of our Civil War, by which Americans ended chattel slavery in the United States and created of a loose confederation of states a modern nation. The insistence that to focus on these subjects is inherently negative is, simply, bizarre.

And the idea that picking a couple of quarters at two different campuses permits a significant statement about “a university-wide faculty culture” is simply embarrassing. I fervently hope the report’s authors do not class themselves as social scientists of any kind. If there’s a “Crisis of Competence,” it’s in the CAS, not the UC.

As far as this dominant faculty culture that the paper’s authors claim to have found:

Why did the U.S. constitution last? How has it become so influential? Why is it a leader in so many fields? These are central questions, but the dominant faculty culture has no interest in them.

First, I am pretty sure there is a pronoun error here; the “it”s in the second and third sentences are probably meant to refer to “the United States” rather than “the U.S. constitution.”

Second, in any case, there is little question how the US came to be a leader in so many fields. It spent a tremendous amount of public money on education, particularly high school and university education – which is one of the fields in which it remains, despite the alleged crisis, top in the world.

As a concluding fillip to the section on history, the report’s authors write,

Worse still is the fact that even students majoring in history can graduate knowing little or nothing about the history of their own country. At UC Davis, a history major can avoid American history entirely …

This is not really true. At UC Davis, it is not possible for a history major to avoid American history entirely because no UC Davis undergraduate can avoid American history entirely; the General Education Requirements ask that students fulfill a requirement in

American Cultures, Governance, and History; at least 6 units; of which at least 3 units must be in a course certified as focusing on issues of domestic diversity

I am confident the diversity requirement would have offended the CAS if they had spotted it.

The California Association of Scholars paper should have been more responsible in its research and interpreting its findings. Their report could then have been a thought-provoking critique of university education in California. As it is the Regents and the Los Angeles Times should have recycled it on receipt. It has already got far more attention than it merits.

The UC probably is at a turning point, if not a crisis. It has come largely because the state has been steadily de-funding the university. Once California’s pride, providing education to generations free of charge to the students – once America’s pride, providing the nation with its nuclear deterrent and helping to win the Cold War – it has turned of necessity to fee-seeking. This transformation has come about because Republicans do not want taxes to pay for the UC. They do not want taxes to pay for science much at all. They do not like the results of climate science or of evolutionary biology. Is it any wonder that the CAS finds fewer Republicans than there used to be among the faculty on university campuses?

UPDATED to add, Silbey suggests in comments below that the CAS complaint of UCSD in fall 2010 is not that there isn’t “any course that provides a connected view of the sweep of American history” but that there isn’t any such course at the upper-division level. That’s an even stranger and more esoteric complaint. So the demand is that you teach the survey at both lower and upper divisions?

1In the voice of Tom Petty saying, “Hello, CD listeners!”

This entry was posted in critiquing the critics, fiddling while the UC burns, our thing, reviewing the reviewers, sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, the ivory towers of academe, the last days of the American republic. Bookmark the permalink.