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Publick Occurrences 2.0

January 11, 2013

The Value of Studying Politics in Context

Several years ago, the student conservative publication on the campus of a friend published a screed against newfangled history, decrying the rise of courses that focused on race, class, and gender, and bemoaning the lack of courses on serious subjects such as politics and economics. The publication singled out for praise a course taught by that friend on American business history. I chuckled when I read the article because the course in question focused heavily on—you guessed it—issues of race, gender, and class in American business. There’s only so much one can learn by reading course titles.

That story came to mind today as I read from a Facebook friend that the National Association of Scholars (and its affiliate group, the Texas Association of scholars), were releasing a report on Texas public universities that claims that the American history taught at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University contains too much social and cultural history (with “race, class, and gender,” or “RCG” as their stand-ins) and not enough political, economic, or diplomatic history.

Several people, including me, posted the report and discussed it on Twitter yesterday afternoon with a fair bit of derision and snark, pointing out, for instance, that the report flagged as objectionable The Minutemen and Their World, Robert A. Gross’s classic study of Concord in 1775, and Liberty and Power, a book whose subtitle is The Politics of Jacksonian America. Using syllabi, as many have argued, is an imperfect measure of what happens in a classroom; I offered as an example that my students listen to the Gettysburg Address in class rather than reading it at home.

That’s all well and good, and self-satisfying to boot. But for a moment indulge me in taking the report seriously to see whether those of us who practice political history in a way that attends carefully to society and culture can learn anything about how we pitch our work.

First, take a look at the report’s ten recommendations (pp. 47-49 of the report). At the topline, they are completely and utterly unobjectionable (in part because they are so vague):

  1. Review the Curriculum.
  2. If Necessary, Convene an External Review.
  3. Hire Faculty Members with a Broader Range of Research Interests.
  4. Keep Broad Courses Broad.
  5. Identify Essential Reading.
  6. Design Better Courses.
  7. Diversify Graduate Programs.
  8. Evaluate Conformity with Laws.
  9. Publish Better Books.
  10. Depoliticize History.

See? Nothing objectionable, except insofar as faculty around the United States are already doing nearly all of those things. We all worked to improve our courses, to “identify essential reading,” to address broad questions in survey courses, and so on. Nearly all of us try to publish better books, and our departments conduct frequent curricular reviews (my own department is in the midst of one this year). The problem, of course, is that a conservative organization such as NAS sees the outcomes of those efforts as fundamentally different from many academics.

To understand how, I want to talk more about the tenth recommendation. Here’s the full text after the brief nugget:

The root of the problem is that colleges and universities have drifted from their main mission. They and particular programs within them, increasingly think of themselves as responsible for reforming American society and curing it of prejudice and bigotry. When universities and university programs consider it necessary to atone for, and help erase, oppressions of the past; one way in which they do so is by depicting history as primarily a struggle of the downtrodden against rooted injustice. This pedagogical conception may be well-intended, but it is also a limited and partisan one, and history teaching should not allow itself to become imprisoned within a narrow interpretation. A depoliticized history would provide a comprehensive interpretation of American history that does not shortchange students by denying them exposure to intellectual, political, religious, diplomatic, military, and economic historical themes.

The dominance of race, class, and gender themes in history curricula came about through disciplinary mission creep. Historians and professors of United States history should return to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.

The last sentence is the crucial one. The conservative impulse, as Jeremi Suri noted, is to teach “a simple and one-sided history of just a few people.” I attended a seminar this summer in which someone argued that you simply needed to “give students the documents” and they would be able to understand their meaning, and another person argued with me that I should be teaching the “enduring meaning” of the Constitution. (My response was that the Constitution hadn’t endured in 1787 when it was written, its drafters were in fact incredibly nervous about whether it would endure, and that the Civil War poked a rather gaping hole in the suggestion that that 1787 Constitution was fine as is.)

Teaching history that way, however, does an enormous disservice to students. As a political historian, I agree that teaching political history is important, and I emphasize it in my own survey course (my analogy to Texas is a state law here requiring instruction in both the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions). I believe, as I’ve argued here before, that civic education is an important function of American history courses. Understanding the political history of the United States better, including comprehending just what documents such as the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation meant to various groups, can only help modern political discourse. But I don’t want to pass on a simple story to my students, in no small measure because there is no simple story. In fact, I would argue, college history is not about answers, as NAS wishes, but about asking useful questions. I want, and I think many of my colleagues, to empower students to engage with the fullness of the past, to understand how debates in Philadelphia in 1787, in Congress in January 1865, at Versailles in 1919—choose your example from the standard narrative of political, diplomatic, and economic history—shaped and were shaped by social and cultural forces out of doors.

To address NAS on its own terms, one of its benchmarks for proper reading assignments is the National Archives list of 100 Milestone Documents. Go take a look and figure out how many of those documents one can discuss without any reference to race, class, or gender, NAS’s menacing troika. Maybe the Lend-Lease Act? The Manhattan Project’s notebook? Of course I’m not a twentieth-century specialist so I could be wrong about those. My point is that the political history that NAS and like-minded organizations promote looks desiccated and inadequate without any consideration of the important knowledge we’ve gained and the questions it allows us to ask over the past few decades. For a sample of that, I would just offhand recommend Benjamin Irvin’s book, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty, which recasts the political symbols that Congress promoted to develop American nationalism through an analysis of gendered language, or class implications. It’s a good example of what I aspire to (still working on the book manuscript…) in terms of integrating new questions about culture into an older narrative about American politics.

A conversation about teaching and practicing political history is useful, but the solution is not to ignore the best contributions of social and cultural history by winding back the clock and pretending that those questions don’t exist and don’t matter. And it’s the responsibility of political historians who see value in that process to engage those interested in old-fashioned politics and convince them that those questions do matter.

 

For more coverage, see:

“UT, A&M shortchanging students on American history, report says” (Austin Statesman, Jan. 9, 2013)

NAS press release: “Colleges Twist U.S. History”

Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History? (PDF)

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20 Comments »

  1. Political historians need to stand up for asking cultural questions; a response to NAS new at Publick Occurrences: http://t.co/yMvwTvix

    Comment by Joseph Adelman (@jmadelman) — January 11, 2013 @ 8:58 am

  2. If you haven’t done so already, you need to read @jmadelman on yesterday’s NAS report. http://t.co/koLmIpYo

    Comment by Kenneth Owen (@kenneth_owen) — January 11, 2013 @ 10:05 am

  3. The report’s methodology is so clearly faulty that it discredits any of the points that it’s trying to make. The biggest problem from my perspective is that historically illiterate screeds like this do pretty serious damage to the cause of political history in the classroom, and yet some of the concerns expressed in the report don’t strike me as tremendously unfair. In particular, if their data on the hiring of historians by decade is accurate (and I’m not at all prepared to accept the claims on face value, given how faulty their reading of assigned texts is), then that is a problem. Sure, there wasn’t enough attention paid to social and cultural history in hiring back in the 60s and 70s; but you don’t solve that problem by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What amounts to little more than a more detailed ad hominem attack does nothing to correct that state of affairs.

    I also want to take issue with the notion that depoliticizing history is a good idea. You rightly point out the errors of saying there is a simple ‘story’ to be handed down to future generations. (Oh how those in the 1840s failed to hand down the story that slavery was the essential bedrock of a free American society!) But perhaps one of the reasons there is a waning interest in history is because we fail to explain why the events of the past matter if we don’t emphasise conflict. Students cared deeply in 2012 about which candidate won the election (and if my classes are anything to go by, supported more than just one candidate). Do we explain why people in 1800 felt so similarly about choosing Adams or Jefferson? Why shouldn’t we take a nakedly political approach as a means of getting students to engage more carefully with our ideas – so that we can inspire heavy debate to be used as a springboard to thinking analytically?

    Finally, I think there might be another opportunity that is opened up in critiquing the report by looking at those 100 Milestone Documents. Sure, the list is probably faulty enough as it is, but if we went through and looked at how many of those documents you simply couldn’t teach without focusing on race, class, and gender, my guess is that you’d come to a pretty similar percentage breakdown of readings to those NAS identified in the Texas syllabi.

    Comment by Ken Owen — January 11, 2013 @ 10:18 am

  4. “there is no simple (his)story” PRECISELY MT @RBTatAHA @kenneth_owen you need to read @jmadelman on NAS report. http://t.co/oZKGIYW4

    Comment by @ProfessMoravec — January 11, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

  5. Adelman’s thoughts on the NAS report are excellent. I will have a different perspective this weekend. http://t.co/ENFJrELj #history

    Comment by @miles120 — January 11, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

  6. “college history is not about answers…but about asking useful questions” @jmadelman on NAS’s curricula criticism http://t.co/bhROtqWF

    Comment by Sarah Werner (@wynkenhimself) — January 12, 2013 @ 7:16 am

  7. Thanks for this, Joseph. But the NAS has clearly failed if they recommend U.S. history documents from the National Archives–look at them! We’re supposed to teach about Indian Removal or the creation of the U.S. Colored Troops in 1863! Who do they think trains these so-called “experts?” Yes, that’s right: professional historians ensconced in History departments!

    They don’t realize how deep the conspiracy truly is.

    Comment by Historiann — January 12, 2013 @ 7:32 pm

  8. Publick Occurrences 2.0 » The Value of Studying Politics in Context http://t.co/VUuFBQl9

    Comment by @rashiddar — January 13, 2013 @ 8:50 am

  9. [...] “growing up colored”Akhil Reed Amar on “presidential encores”Joseph Adelman takes on the National Association of Scholars Read more here.Filed Under: John Fea, Sunday Night Odds [...]

    Pingback by Sunday Night Odds and Ends — January 13, 2013 @ 5:27 pm

  10. From the NAS Study:
    “A depoliticized history would provide a comprehensive interpretation of American history that does not shortchange students by denying them exposure to intellectual, political, religious, diplomatic, military, and economic historical themes. The dominance of race, class, and gender themes in history curricula came about through disciplinary mission creep. Historians and professors of United States history should return to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.”

    Adelman’s comment__
    The last sentence is the crucial one. The conservative impulse, as Jeremi Suri noted, is to teach “a simple and one-sided history of just a few people.”

    My Comment as one of the writers of the NAS Report–
    The assumption about “the conservative impulse” to teach “a simple and one-side history of just a few people” does not follow from the any of these sentances. In fact, the NAS report believes that Social History including Race, class and gender must be an essential part of a “whole picture” of the American Narrative–and it should not an elitist history. Multiple interpretations is desirable with many different historical themes covered–as comprehensive as possible in a survey course. The report, in fact, demonstrates that Texas A&M does a far better job at this comprehensiveness than the University of Texas. It can be done!

    Comment by Richard Fonte — January 14, 2013 @ 12:06 am

  11. Richard Fonte of NAS responded to my Publick Occurrences post about its report on US History syllabi: http://t.co/dP3IxV5i

    Comment by Joseph Adelman (@jmadelman) — January 14, 2013 @ 8:45 am

  12. Thanks for this post, Joe. The fact that even a fairly traditional work of political history like Harry Watson’s “Liberty and Power” lands on that does tell you a lot. It’s not the lack of political history and other traditional topics NAS is upset about, but the lack of a particular AOK in the USA perspective. Arthur Schlesinger Sr. & Jr. and Richard Hofstadter would be deemed inadequate too. It is particularly weird to pick on that department at UT, which seems to have invested more in traditional forms of history than most U.S. departments, with Suri on diplomatic history and H.W. Brands pumping out the narrative bestsellers.

    Comment by Jeffrey L. Pasley — January 14, 2013 @ 11:57 am

  13. I’m confused by the report’s wording that current syllabi shortchange students “by denying them exposure to intellectual, political, religious, diplomatic, military, and economic historical themes.” How would any syllabus “deny” students exposure to anything? If they are interested in those issues–which like race, class and, gender, would be present in virtually any topic the course covered–surely they would be welcome to look into them on their own.

    Comment by Mr. Sidetable — January 14, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

  14. [...] Joseph M. Adelman at Publick-Occurrences 2.0 Historiann: History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present Robert Jensen on Academe Blog [...]

    Pingback by History and the Culture Wars | The Dialectic — January 14, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  15. For the record, Liberty and Power assigned by only one member of the faculty at Texas A&M was classified as Political History, Business & Economic History and Social History with a Class emphasis. I believe you would have to say that would be the correct “multiple” classification of the contents of this book. Therefore, in the NAS study, it comes up as both social history and also in two other categories. This added to the total number of assignments in political history of A&M as welll as business and economic history. Yes, it is a classic, so why was it not assigned by any UT faculty.
    The Minutemen and their world is a classic bottom up social history of concord, and it was classified into four categories of social history. The author himself describes it as part of the “new social history”–new for its time, obviously. I think these classifications are reasonable and would be easily identified by any reader of this book. A brief review of virtually any book review including the general public reviews at Amazon would verify that this book was correctly classified as too content. By the way, it was also used by only 1 faculty member, at UT used this book
    The fact that A&M would use a book that contains clearly a mix of themes and UT chose not too, is a good example of the differences between the two institutions. A&M selected reading assignments that were more inclusive and comprehensive. Of course, there were exceptions to this general comment at both institutions.

    Comment by Richard Fonte — January 14, 2013 @ 6:49 pm

  16. Question, re: “(my analogy to Texas is a state law here requiring instruction in both the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions).” In this sentence, where is “here?” Texas, Missouri, or Massachusetts? If one of the first two, why is the Massachusetts constitution required?

    Comment by Rachel B — January 15, 2013 @ 10:26 am

  17. Please ignore previous – I had mistaken the author of this post – clearly it’s Massachusetts.

    Comment by Rachel B — January 15, 2013 @ 10:26 am

  18. [...] Joseph M. Adelman at Publick-Occurrences 2.0 Historiann: History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present Robert Jensen on Academe Blog [...]

    Pingback by History and the Culture Wars | All Things Michael Miles — January 20, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

  19. [...] The Value of Studying Politics in Context, Joseph Adelman, Publick Occurrences 2.0. [...]

    Pingback by What’s in the History Survey? A Roundup of Reactions to the NAS Report | American Historical Association — June 10, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

  20. [...] The Value of Studying Politics in Context Publick Occurrences 2.0 addresses the criticisms by the National Association of Scholars—that historians spend too much time thinking about race, gender, and class. (The February issue of Perspectives on History will feature another critique of the NAS report by the AHA’s executive director and vice president, Teaching Division.) [...]

    Pingback by What We’re Reading: January 17, 2013 | American Historical Association — July 17, 2013 @ 9:27 am

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