Letter to the Editor: On "Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating the Discipline?"
Robert Dornfried, May 2013
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On "Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating the Discipline?"To the Editor:After reading the March 2013 edition of Perspectives I feel the need to comment on the article "Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating the Discipline?" by Vanessa Varin. I am a first year high school history teacher and recent graduate from a New England liberal arts college. I currently attend graduate school en route to obtaining a master's in social science. I am also a member of the AHA and love reading your magazine and utilizing resources from the website. I couldn't agree more that race, class, gender, and more importantly, non-Western history have seeped into history departments at the expense of dropping canonical fields such as medieval, diplomatic, and military history. I was extremely disappointed with the curriculum offerings at my undergraduate liberal arts college, especially since several professors retired who had taught imperial, military, diplomatic, and European history were replaced with professors who taught gender, ethnic, and non-Western history, and who, in my opinion, were sub-par. Although they had PhDs, the quality of their lectures, seminars, and teaching styles were inferior to the veterans of the "old-school." The decision to hire a new wave of historians and offer non-Western courses seems to reflect a societal shift away from traditional Western civilization roots within history departments and secondary schools. Although I do not deny the importance of obtaining a world perspective or that of particular ethnic and gender histories, by sacrificing, neglecting, and relegating diplomatic, military, and imperial history many would-be historians are discouraged from pursuing history in college. This subsequently limits the quality pool of interested teachers and academics, which in my opinion are the backbone of history. Although it may be difficult for history departments to resist societal, governmental, and administrative pressure to diversify and conform, the preservation of curricula and distinguished faculty is, in my opinion, 100 percent controllable and must be resisted.
The influx of historians of non-Western subjects into the collegiate ranks has had a negative effect on the rate of history majors and their happiness within the major for those that choose it. History, like the humanities, is battling for survival. The worst thing that can happen is to hasten that demise by hiring controversial scholars of ethnic and gender history whose work appeals to a very small segment of the student population and deliver sub-par lectures and teaching. These gender and ethnic courses soon turned into homogenous classrooms filled with students, especially non-history majors, who invaded the otherwise scholarly classroom environment. Only minorities enrolled in ethnic history classes and only women's studies majors enrolled in gender history classes. This is not the essence of a liberal arts education. Rather, the politicization of these courses and the faculty turned many apolitical students away who wished to obtain an objective history. This in fact exacerbated race relations on campus whereby minorities and women felt increasingly isolated, especially within newly polarized departments such as history.
A closer examination of the transformation of middle and high school curricula over the past decade would reveal the shift from Western to world civilization. Despite the validity of becoming globally aware, the truth is, the best subject for college history majors and future teachers, professors, and academics is the study of military, political, European, and diplomatic history. As a student this lit my fire, and now as a teacher, it lights a passionate fire for my students. Most of our elective courses revolve around diplomatic, imperial, and military history. Our enrollment numbers are huge. Closer examinations of prep school elective courses also reveal the level of interest of the student body in these fields. Why colleges have dropped them is baffling. It may be a reflection of our human nature, but guys and girls love the study of war. It's in our movies, videogames, television, and magazines. But it's denied classroom study. This is a travesty and I do my best to ensure vital perspectives are not sacrificed for the sake of a watered-down global education. Public secondary school curricula are where I believe AHA can make a stand.
Thank you for preserving history. I enjoy reading your articles and look forward to every issue. Hopefully this helps