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In Report, University History Departments Face Scrutiny

Tamir Kalifa, Texas Tribune
University of Texas at Austin students pass by the Main Building on their way to and from classes.

At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, three conservative groups — the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the National Association of Scholars and the Texas Association of Scholars — will release a sure-to-be controversial report alleging that the University of Texas and Texas A&M University offer students "a less-than-comprehensive picture of history.”

The report’s rollout is part of a three-day policy orientation by the TPPF, an Austin-based think tank that has been tied to some of the state's most hotly-debated proposed higher education reforms. It signals a renewed push to reconsider the course offerings in the history departments of the state’s public universities, and particularly to boost the number of courses dedicated to the study Western Civilization.

Jeremi Suri, a prominent historian at UT who has already read the report, called it disappointing. 

“I have a lot of respect for the National Association of Scholars. They spend a lot of time defending free speech, and I’m a big believer in free speech, but this report is just so off base. It’s just not accurate."

Written by Richard Fonte, the former director of the We the People program at the National Endowment for the Humanities, the study examined the background of professors and the syllabi for 85 courses offered in the fall of 2010 that could have counted toward the state’s requirement that students at public institutions take two American history classes.

“We found that all too often the course readings gave strong emphasis to race, class and gender 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),” Fonte wrote.

He contended that the prevalence of so-called “RCG” — race, class and gender — assignments was more of an issue at UT than at A&M. He determined that too many courses were highly specialized, and also noted that major historical figures were being overlooked at both universities, with only rare mentions of “Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Dewey, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas A. Edison, the Wright brothers or the scientists of the Manhattan Project.”

Thomas Lindsay, the director of the TPPF's Center for Higher Education, said in a statement that his organization “is pleased to be a part of launching this study, which will help universities and administrators to return to teaching American history in its fullness.” 

“Strengthening the teaching of American history, government, and Western Civilization is at the very core of our recommendations for reform,” he added.

In December, Lindsay was among the authors of a TPPF report that suggested that “university regents and other administrators should be encouraged to institute reforms that place more focus on teaching students basic American history, government, economics, and Western Civilization, whether through a standardized test or more course options/requirements.”

This new report recommends that the universities have their curriculum reviewed, hire new faculty members with broader interests, make sure survey courses remain broad in scope and “depoliticize history.” The report will be given to the leadership at the universities.

“We hope that they will read it and consider it instead of judging it without reading it,” said Ashley Thorne, director for the study of the curriculum at the National Association of Scholars.

She acknowledged that the group is accustomed to taking controversial stances, including a strong opposition to affirmative action, which UT recently defended before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Suri said the UT history program has a strong emphasis in military, political and diplomatic history; some on the left argue it's too strong, he added.

Suri, author of Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama, said that departmental focus was one of the primary reasons he came to UT. He said the report makes no mention of a new university center focused on diplomacy and national security, or of the Normandy Scholars program, which offers students an intense focus on World War II and is one of UT’s signature offerings.

“There is political correctness in the academic world, and academics — like people in any field — tend to follow fashions and trends. And sometimes that’s a problem," he said. "But that’s not a problem with the teaching of history in this department. They just chose the wrong thing.”

Fonte said he anticipated that the university would defend itself against his findings and acknowledged that the report makes assumptions about courses based on their assigned readings. Suri argues that an accurate understanding of the nature of a course requires more involvement than merely a review of the syllabus from a single semester.

“Come sit in, come engage us, if you really care,” Suri said, extending the same invitation to curious legislators.

Anxiety about the history curriculum at Texas public universities is nothing new for state legislators. One of the most memorable debates on the House floor during the 82nd legislative session occurred when state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, proposed an amendment requiring that universities dedicate 10 percent of their courses to instruction in “Western Civilization.”

The amendment failed, in part because of his inability to articulate his motivation for offering it.

When Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, pressed him on what he meant by “Western Civilization,” Christian provided the following response: 

Similarly frustrated with Christian’s responses to questions about whether the abolitionist movement or Native American studies would be included in the requirement, state Rep. Raphael Anchia, D-Dallas, publicly speculated that the motivation behind the amendment was “very political and potentially insulting,” and argued that UT and other universities should be “free from this type of manipulation and political statement on the House floor.”

Christian will not be returning this session; he lost his bid for re-election. But Thursday’s press conference is a strong indication that his proposal — or something resembling it — might.

Lindsay told the Tribune that he did not think the discussion should be as contentious as it was in the previous session. “This transcends any party differences,” he said. “Democracy is not a gift. It’s something that each generation has to earn, and the current generation must teach to the up and coming generation.”

As for race, class, and gender, both Lindsay and Fonte said those topics should be taught, but with less of an emphasis than they believe currently exists.

“Those are all aspects of American history,” Lindsay said. “Students should be introduced to all of them, because you want students to have a broad understanding of American history.”

Reeve Hamilton has interned at The Nation and The Texas Observer, for which he covered the 2009 legislative session. Most recently, he was a desk assistant at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. A Houston native, he has a bachelor's degree in English from Vanderbilt University.
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