The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a point-counterpoint feature on the teaching of history. The occasion for such a feature is the recent report by the National Association of Scholars, "Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?"
If you are unfamiliar with all the hullabaloo surrounding this report you can get up to speed here. Basically, the "Recasting History" project concludes that college history courses in Texas (at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University) emphasize race, class, and gender at the expense of other types of history, such as military, diplomatic, or intellectual history.
Jim Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association, and Elaine Carey, the V.P. for the AHA's Teaching Division, have used their space in The Chronicle to challenge "Recasting History." It is a pretty damning critique. Here is just a taste:
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
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.
The counterpoint is written by Richard Pells, an emeritus professor at the University of Texas. He believes that the "Recasting History" report is correct. He chides the historical academy for it exclusive obsession with social history. Here is a taste:
Nevertheless, what has developed at the University of Texas over the
past 20 years is an almost oppressive orthodoxy and a lack of
intellectual diversity among the history faculty. The result is that
(with a few notable exceptions, like the work of the presidential
historian H.W. Brands) very few courses are taught or books written by
the current faculty on the history of American government, economic
development, or culture and the arts, or on America's strategic and
tactical participation in wars, particularly in the 20th century.
Indeed, the Texas department has not employed a military historian since
These are all subjects of supreme importance in understanding the
evolution and current state of America. One cannot expect either
undergraduate or graduate students to fully comprehend the complexities
of American history without serious and extensive consideration of such
In short, to paraphrase the columnist George Will, academics and
especially specialists in American history at Texas are in favor of
diversity in everything but thought. This is not just an acerbic
quotation, nor is the NAS report to be dismissed as a right-wing
polemic. The crises of intellectual conformity that Will and the
association are depicting are endemic to academic life all over the
From where I sit it appears that both articles make some good points. Grossman and Carey remind us that it is hard to place a piece of scholarship into only one category. Pell's point about the lack of intellectual diversity in the academy is worth considering.