January 28, 2013
By Kenneth Pomeranz
|“An Undisciplined Report on the Teaching of History”, found in the Chronicle of Higher Education|
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.
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.
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.