Recasting History? Further Comments on the Ongoing Discussion

Editorial note: Responding to a report by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) on reading assignments at two Texas universities, Elaine Carey, AHA vice president, Teaching Division, and James Grossman, AHA executive director, wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education that attracted a response from, among others, Samuel Goldman writing for the American Conservative. Carey and Grossman respond to his piece below.

Other threads of this ongoing conversation can be found on last week’s blog post on this same topic by AHA President Kenneth Pomeranz. A version of the Chronicle piece appears also in the February issue of Perspectives on History.

As we stated in our Chronicle piece, we welcome informed debate. Samuel Goldman rightfully argues that few students have adequate grounding in historical knowledge when they arrive at college. We agree with this assessment, although we argue that “historical knowledge” refers to a broader range of concepts and themes than once was the case.

The NAS concluded from reading lists and syllabi that race, class, and gender are covered to the detriment of “traditional” fields, such as diplomatic, military, political, and economic history. We argued that race, class, and gender are categories of analysis in all fields. Diplomatic history, for example, is vastly enriched by understanding the role of ideologies of race in the formation and implementation of policy. Economic history benefits from understandings of how gender affects structures of employment and patterns of consumption.

What we consider a flaw in the NAS report was the investigators’ misunderstanding of the nature of historical inquiry that takes place in the classroom, outside the classroom, and online. Professors do not blithely ignore politics, war, economics, and diplomacy in favor of race, class, and gender; they use the texts and categories of analysis listed in the NAS report to make sense of great historical events and to place those events within the context of changing social relations, cultural values, and the dynamics of power. Students who learn history in such classrooms are better able to understand not only what happened, but how and why.

One item that the NAS report, Goldman, and we agree upon is the continued importance of teaching and learning history. As primary and secondary education systems have shifted to emphasize testing in a few key areas, history and civics have almost disappeared from the curriculum, particularly in primary school. We as historians are very concerned by these changes, and we recognize the NAS and Goldman are as well. In recent years, the AHA has made greater efforts to enhance historical education by working with high school and middle school teachers to enhance the teaching of history. We have paired an increased level of professional development for teachers with a strong voice in favor of history teachers playing a central role in determining history curricula.

The AHA’s current Tuning project is also an important step to further the importance of the study of history. Sixty historians, who represent an array of fields from across the United States, have come together to discuss the importance of teaching and learning history by defining the discipline’s core, competencies, and outcomes. These are important steps to establish the importance of teaching history within the profession, but also to the general population. Rather than attacking the syllabi and reading lists of faculty in Texas, we invite the NAS and Goldman to join us in articulating the importance of history education and a broad understanding of historical knowledge.

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  1. Pamela Stewart

    What surprises me as I catch up on this discussion is how few mention anything about who our students are. At a large public university, as well as many other institutions, the vast majority are not AP students. Students can be first-generation college students, from Tribal nations, and from other countries; many are indeed women, people of color, and from marginalized socio-economic groups. Many go into debt for the opportunity of being in the classroom; I was one of those. Given the wide-ranging ways one can teach history—or any course in history—why shouldn’t these facts matter when deciding what readings to assign or what themes to use in a course? So many students get to college without exposure to a bit of history education that reflects anything about their experience or that of their families. If we truly want students to engage with historical analysis and to understand its relevance in their lives, jobs, and otherwise, I would argue that an awareness of “RCG” throughout the syllabus is fundamental. As was noted, the hows and whys are the essence of inquiry; I’ll add that the who, what, where, and when can now most often be googled, as can wide-ranging views on most anything.

    The majority of the world, not a small percentage of it, has direct bodily experience with “RCG” and it is not something theoretical or otherwise simply academic. All of us are part of history, and often work to create significant change generationally or otherwise; few of us become a president, a general, or enter the diplomatic corps, as important as those positions and their histories are. If I include the narrative of a Navajo who grew up poor and served as an enlisted man in World War II, is that not military history, social history, and a few other things besides? Is Colin Powell an example of a focus on “race” only? Military history only?

    My observation is that those historically deemed on the margins of power in History-capital-H (and this has tended to include many under the rubric of “RCG”) tend to observe the centers of power whether for their survival or otherwise, but the opposite is not as often the case. The idea that one can teach a unit that focuses on the (yes, oppressive) Jim Crow era and not see presidents, the Supreme Court, Congress, and even the military clearly doesn’t strike me as preferable, likely, or even possible.

    Finally, those who teach history at the college level are often hired due to their area of research, although that is not my personal experience. That classroom teaching reflects their interests and expertise is neither surprising nor a problem, especially if those engaged in teaching keep their audience, their charge—the students—in mind. If students are sincerely interested in extending their knowledge beyond what a class offers, the tools for doing so are part of what history courses teach.