What’s in the History Survey? A Roundup of Reactions to the NAS Report

The discussion that follows is important to all historians: whether or not you teach U.S. history (or teach at all, for that matter), or work for a public institution, in Texas or elsewhere.  This is not because the NAS report from which it springs is particularly compelling. Like many of the participants in this discussion, I found the report to have serious methodological problems. It looked only at assigned readings, not at classes as a whole; it ignored the very significant institutional support that the Univ. of Texas department gives to precisely those areas, such as military and diplomatic history, that they are charged with ignoring; and it arbitrarily assigns readings to just some of the multiple categories in which they fit.   (An editorial about the 1924 Immigration Act, for instance,  can hardly help being about race and class – but also about foreign policy, economic development, labor relations, urban history, ideas of citizenship, education, and so on.)   But it matters, anyway.

“An Undisciplined Report on the Teaching of History”, found in the Chronicle of Higher Education

It matters because criticisms like this are not unusual, and suggest that we are not explaining what our discipline does as well as we could. Most of us, I think, believe that neither increased attention to the lives of non-elite groups nor the inclusion within history of topics that we once left to others (e.g. consumerism, sexuality, environment) detracts from, for instance, political or intellectual history; but it is easy to see how it could seem so to somebody just counting how many pages or minutes of class time was explicitly devoted to a given item. Using these critiques as teachable moments to explain how a study of, say, masculinity in Hollywood films can lead to a deeper understanding of the New Deal or the Cold War gives us a chance to demonstrate the value of what we find when we are free to explore new directions; this is likely to work better than simply repeating that we are entitled to autonomy.   Moreover, the question of broad versus specialized courses (whether those courses specialize in “old” or “new” kinds of history) gets to crucial questions about how to present our discipline to people who are likely to get only a limited exposure to it. At the simplest level, how do we make an effective case for the ways of reading and thinking that we teach, often through specialized courses, to a public that tends to think that the main thing we provide (and the main reason to have history requirements) is a set of facts?

Consequently, the round-up below provides points of departure for multiple conversations.  One would engage with this specific report, and the claims it makes about the particular courses it evaluates.  Another would ask, as of any document “Why this report at this time and place?” A third would ask how historians can clarify and re-direct discussions about what we do, both among ourselves and with a larger public.

An Undisciplined Report on the Teaching of History, James Grossman and Elaine Carey, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Historian Richard Pells offers an alternative perspective from Grossman and Carey’s piece, titled The Obsession With Social History, also in the Chronicle.

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

Does History Need a ‘Marshall Plan’?, Will Inboden, Foreign Policy Blogs.

National Association of Scholars Has Long History with University of Texas, Jordan Rudner, The Daily Texan.

From the Editor: On the Report by The National Association of Scholars About US History at UT, Joan Neuberger, Not Even Past.

Group Criticizes History Offerings at 2 Texas Universities, Inside Higher Ed.

In Report, University History Departments Face Scrutiny, Reeve Hamilton, The Texas Tribune.

National Association of Scholars, The Daily Texan.

The Rich Male Whiteness, It Burns, Erik Loomis, Lawyers, Guns & Money.

TPPF Press Conference Launches Study by the National Association of Scholars and Texas Association of Scholars, Texas Public Policy Foundation.

University of Texas at Austin Statement on National Association of Scholars Report.

UT, A&M Shortchanging Students on American History, Report Says, Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, Statesman.

What Kind of History Should We Teach? Jeremi Suri, The Alcalde.

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  1. Richard Fonte

    My name is Richard Fonte, I was one of the writers of the NAS report. Reading the remarks by James Grossman and Elaine Carey, I began to wonder whether they were discussing the same report, since their comments are laced with inaccuracies. The first and most fundamental error is the statement that the study contrasts “11 more-traditional subfields of American history” with a separate category of Social History focused on Race, Class and Gender. This is not true! The study explored in total 11 possible sub-fields which included four subfields dedicated to Social History. These sub-fields were not pulled out of the air but selected by looking at sub-field categories listed at the web-sites of over 20 universities and commonly listed on the academic Vitae of faculty. In fact, every reading assignment examined in the study was classified into as many of these eleven categories (including 4 social history categories) as was reasonable, based upon the content of the reading
    The second error by Grossman & Elaine Carey was the statement that the report “authors seem to have either not read or understood” the content of the reading assignment. This is not true. Every Article (499 articles) was read by a “blind reviewer” with a phd. in social science (Not report writer). His assignment was based upon what the article was about—the topics covered and he was charged with assigning a classification after a thorough reading into as many of the 11 categories as a reasonable interpretation of the content would warrent.
    This leads to the third error-an assumption that reading assignments were not cross classified into Political History for example and also Social History with a Gender Emphasis. They were! Grossman and Carey proclaim that the NAS study classified writings of Abgail Adams as solely an “exercise in gender history—never mind her writings about the political ramification of the American Revolution..” In reality, the NAS study did in fact, classify the Abgail Adams readings assignment as “political history.” Another inaccurate, assumption mentioned by Grossman and Carey suggested that the work, Great Depression, was considered solely as a work focused on class. Yet the NAS study, while recognizing that the work as related to class also classified the work as covering political history and economic history

    A related error was the suggestion that the special topic course, “The United States and Africa” was designated a “racial topic”, perhaps, “because Africans south of the Sahara are black.” No course was designated in such a idiotic manner. What was determined after reviewing four readings and the “internet resources” listed on the syllabus, was that over 50% of the readings assignments and internet assignments (actually 100% of the assignments) focused on Blacks from West Africa. One of the listed course objectives was “to help students understand …..and to obtain a better understanding of racial conditions in the US.” The NAS objection to this “Special topic” course was that it was intentionally narrow and therefore did not fulfil the 1971 Texas law that assumed that broader and more comprehensive survey courses would be the common practice.

    In fact, despite this effort to broadly classify the reading assignments of any survey course or special topic course, we found far fewer assignments that covered economic history, diplomatic history, military history, scientific or technological history than Social History. While the NAS study would agree that Social History adds an “enriched tapestry,” …”that helps us to better understand the dynamics of change,” the study deplores the significant lack of intellectual history assignments. We did find the exception to this paucity was evident by those faculty members who used anthologies. We found very few “primary source” documents or key works of history assigned even those that cover significant social history themes that had strong political messages. Only one faculty member out of forty-six assigned Uncle Tom’s Cabin and only five assigned Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas. Virtually no faculty member assigned in any survey course any work by Bernard Bailyn, Pauline Maier or Gordon Wood, Why Not? Clearly, these scholars should be recognized in the reading assignments of faculty members. There is much to learn beyond Social history and advances in historical scholarship has occurred in fields beyond social history.
    Let us renew a broad and comprehensive overview for non-majors of history. Let us relate an American History narrative that is full and complete, warts and all. Clearly, much more than Social History!
    Richard Fonte
    Report writer
    Former Director, We the People, National Endowment for the Humanities

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