From the From the Executive Director column in the February 2013 issue of Perspectives on History
James Grossman and Elaine Carey, February 2013
Historians welcome informed debate. Our stock in trade, it is precisely what attracted many of us to the discipline in the first place. Thus, our initial reaction to a recent report by the National Association of Scholars (NAS)—"Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?"—was to gladly engage the ideas, explore the research model, and open a conversation about different ways of understanding history. But the NAS report does not contribute to informed debate. It is based on readings of historical literature that are uninformed, tendentious, and shallow.
"Recasting History" presents itself as a detailed study of lower-level history courses at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University, based on syllabi. Its critique is straightforward: "all too often the course readings gave strong emphasis to race, class, or gender (RCG) 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). The result is that the institutions frequently offered students a less-than-comprehensive picture of U.S. history." The report condemns "narrow, specialized, and ideologically partisan approaches, largely driven by faculty research agendas."
So, for instance, an instructor whose syllabus includes Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom, the biography of a prominent Virginia planter, has thus assigned a book about "race" and "class"—not a work of political or intellectual history. Any historian, in fact, who writes or teaches about the dynamics of power in a context that includes black people is understood by this report to be interested exclusively in "race," American slavery being merely a "racial" topic with little of consequence for students of political, intellectual, religious, diplomatic, or military history. To study Abigail Adams is an exercise in gender history—never mind her writings about the political ramifications of the American Revolution (much less grasping the fact that any study of her husband will be equally as gendered). A New England Town: The First Hundred Years, a classic study of 17th-century Massachusetts—one that has taught two generations of students much about Puritan notions of community, religion, and governance—is dismissed as "class" analysis, ducking the "big questions" of American history by engaging the issue of class formation in the early colonies. The Great Depression too falls into the "class" category, as any study of that period will, by NAS's definition, focus exclusively on workers and employers rather than on banking, politics, and diplomacy, not to mention the history of ideas or politics.
This all seemed at first glance odd and tendentious, as well as uninformed. Upon careful reading, it turned out to be all of these and worse. Despite its denunciation of "ideologically partisan approaches," the report is based on an idiosyncratic and ideologically driven taxonomy of the books, articles, and syllabi of historians, compiled with little knowledge of the scholarly literature and even less inclination to engage historians in serious conversation about our work.
Historians are unlikely to find the report convincing, and we hope that general readers will also recognize it as the result not of engaged scholarship based on informed reading, but rather as a "narrow" and "ideologically partisan" attack on the evolution of historical teaching and scholarship to a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of American history.
The report is ostensibly about how American history is taught at two universities. But the data are drawn only from syllabi, rather than from any engagement with what happens in the classroom. The authors neither attended classes nor spoke to instructors. They did not examine lectures, in-class activities, or audio-visual presentations; their report signals no knowledge of digital materials or discussions, take-home assignments, or in-class examinations. This is not a document about teaching in any broad sense of the word. It is a limited study of reading assignments—many of which the authors seem to have either not read or not understood.
Moreover, the authors assume that to the extent that faculty focus on so-called RCG subjects, they necessarily sacrifice coverage of broader themes in American history. But a "course" is never simply a set of readings. The report fails to consider how instructors design their classes—integrating lectures with readings and various other kinds of assignments, presentations, and discussions. Instead, the authors erroneously assume that the percentage of readings dealing with a particular topic will be equivalent to the proportion of overall course time devoted to that theme.
The authors use the acronym RCG as shorthand for a kind of social history that they believe presents "a constrained version of the past." They list 11 more traditional subfields in American history to argue that a growing majority of faculty at the two institutions ignore or neglect those subfields in favor of "broad content categories" delineated by RCG. But these subfields are not discrete subjects of study. Instead, they constitute overlapping categories of historical inquiry that historians have mobilized over the past two generations to build into conceptual frameworks capable of taking into account how individuals fit into meaningful social categories. In their zeal to pigeonhole the teachers and the scholarship under review, the authors confuse "topics" with the useful concepts that enable historians to weave a more nuanced and comprehensive view of the past and the dynamics of historical change. The enemy at the door in this report is the commitment shared by historians of nearly all stripes to expand traditional categories of historical analysis. In the past, U.S. historians focused almost exclusively on white Protestant men of standing—the political campaigns they waged, the wars they fought, the foreign treaties they negotiated. Today, historians offer an enriched tapestry—one that helps us to better understand the dynamics of change. Military and diplomatic historians now consider the implications of their work for the study of gender, and the implications of gender for understanding military leaders and their troops. Intellectual historians examine the writings of all sorts of people, regardless of class, gender, or race. Civil War historians study the civilian home front and the process of emancipation, rather than accepting outdated references to Lincoln freeing the slaves all by himself—a notion plainly belied by the primary sources we read and assign. By freezing in historiographical time what they consider 11 clearly delineated subfields of American history, and by underestimating the extent to which those subfields overlap with each other and with new historical insights, the report betrays a limited understanding of the nature of historical scholarship and the collaborative ethos of historians who work in different fields and see the past in different ways.
Just how little the authors know about history as a discipline is casually betrayed by this sort of detail: a course called The United States and Africa is designated a "racial" topic. Is this because Africans south of the Sahara are black? Would The United States and Europe be categorized under "race"? What about The History of Inter-American Relations?
The report concludes with a claim that "our findings in this study shed light on a source of America's increasing ignorance about their own history." We share the National Association of Scholars' concern over Americans' limited knowledge of "their own history" (not to speak of the history beyond our borders). It is not clear that Americans knew more about the past before historians began to broaden and deepen their focus; the report assumes this rather than demonstrating it. Many Americans once "knew" about the Civil War because they had watched Gone with the Wind. They might have "known" that George Washington's character was rooted in a tale about a cherry tree. They knew very little about the roles of their own ancestors in shaping the American landscape, literal and cultural. Our students learn many of the same things that their predecessors were taught, but they also know aspects of our past that help them to understand themselves and their families as makers, and not just students, of history.
James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association.
Elaine Carey is vice president, AHA Teaching Division, and chair of the Department of History at St. John's University in Queens, New York.
A version of this essay appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.