Report on Race, Gender in College History Courses Stirs Debate

Ralph Haurwitz, Statesman, January 20, 2013

When a report on American history classes at the state’s two public flagship universities was released this month, it quickly became clear that its sponsors were pursuing more than an intellectual exercise.

The National Association of Scholars and its Texas affiliate want the state Legislature to act on the report’s recommendation that public institutions of higher learning put less emphasis in history courses on race, class and gender and more on political, diplomatic and military matters.

Critics, including some faculty members at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, are questioning the study’s methodology and the academic credentials of one of the principal researchers. The dispute also underscores the larger issue of just how far lawmakers should go in specifying what must be taught, the details of which have traditionally been left to campuses and their faculty members.

{snip} Thus far, no measure has been filed along the lines of the report’s recommendations.

“We turn to our friends in the Texas Legislature and say, ‘How ‘bout it? We need some amendments here,’” Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, said at the report’s official unveiling Jan. 10 in Austin. He was referring to a 1971 law that requires students at public colleges and universities to earn six credits, typically by taking two courses, in American history.

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Officials of the National Association of Scholars and the Texas Association of Scholars said they spent two years analyzing all textbooks and other readings for 85 sections of freshman and sophomore U.S. history courses at A&M; and UT that satisfied the state requirement. They were able to undertake the review because Texas has a law that requires an unusual degree of disclosure, said Richard Fonté, an author of the report who was previously president of Austin Community College and director of a program at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Enacted in 2009, it requires faculty members at public universities to post the syllabus, reading assignments and other information for each course on the school’s publicly accessible website.

A total of 625 reading assignments were tallied, and after taking duplications into account, that worked out to 499 different titles. Each reading was classified into one or more of a dozen categories, including military history, political history, social history with gender emphasis, social history with racial or ethnic emphasis, religious history and so forth.

The analysis found that 78 percent of the UT faculty members teaching the courses were “high assigners” of race, class and gender readings, meaning that more than half of the content included a focus in those areas. At A&M;, 50 percent of faculty members were deemed high assigners.

Moreover, 89 percent of faculty members assigned none of the 100 “milestone documents” of U.S. history listed by the National Archives and Records Administration, the report said. Those include the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Overall, the assigned readings gave students “a less-than-comprehensive picture of U.S. history,” with the situation “far more problematic” at UT than at A&M;, the report concluded.

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UT issued a statement challenging the basis of the study. “The report attempts to isolate race, class and gender as something distinct and separate from other areas of study, when in fact they are intrinsic to these other areas,” the university said.

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David Oshinsky, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at UT, said it’s true that race, class and gender are emphasized more than they were 30 or 40 years ago. That’s because history courses previously focused narrowly on the “great white man,” such as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, he said. More recently, American history courses have taken on an increasingly global flavor, examining the nation’s place in a world where climate change, immigration and other issues span international boundaries.

Oshinsky said the report reflects the “very strong agenda” of the National Association of Scholars. “They have a very, very conservative message. Some of it appeals to me,” said Oshinsky. “But they can’t make out like they just want to teach all facts. Just like the left has its political agenda, these people have their political agenda.”

The association, whose 3,000 members are mostly professors, has long advocated a return to traditional courses in American history and Western civilization. {Snip}

The association was founded in 1987 “to confront the rise of campus political correctness,” as its website puts it. The group opposes racial preferences and filed a brief siding with the plaintiff in a lawsuit, now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, that seeks to strike down UT’s consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions. {snip}

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The Legislature has long held a certain amount of sway over the undergraduate core curriculum. State law specifies that all students must study not only history but also math, science, communication and certain other subjects. In some cases, students can satisfy the requirements in high school—for example, by taking an Advanced Placement course.

Legislating the details of what must be taught, or conveying a sense that lawmakers are looking over faculty members’ shoulders, would be “bleak” and “frightening” for academic freedom, said UT’s Oshinsky.

“It would be very, very hard to hire good faculty,” Oshinsky said. “They’d be worried about what they could and couldn’t teach.”

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