Why the Skewing of U.S. History Matters

Over the past several weeks, I’ve penned several posts
examining the transformation of how U.S. history is taught, and studied, in
higher education. The two clear patterns: (1) a decline in U.S. historians who
study topics deemed “traditional”; and (2) a “re-visioning” of many of those
who continue to study “traditional” topics to make their focus either less
U.S.-centered or more amenable to the omnipotent race/class/gender trinity. The
result: at many institutions, even those students who want to take courses in
U.S. political, diplomatic, constitutional, or military history are unable to
do so.

Why should anyone outside the academy care about this
transformation? Beyond the obvious–that the colleges and universities of any
nation should provide instruction from specialists in that nation’s past
governmental actions–let me offer three reasons. The first involves
lower-level history instruction, an area in which there’s much greater public
interest (and involvement) than regarding the college curriculum. In recent
years, state social studies standards have occasionally been the subject of a
far-right overreach, as in Texas when a Tea Party contingent took over the
state education board, or in Nebraska, which adopted
mandating teaching social studies through the prism of “the United States as an exceptional nation
based upon personal freedom, the inherent nature of citizens’ rights and
democratic ideals.”

But for the most
part, state standards have, reasonably, sought to ensure that students have a
basic familiarity with such “traditional” topics as the Presidents, the
Constitution, important military conflicts in U.S. history, and key pieces of
legislation and public policy developments. The assumption of state education
boards, of course, is that colleges and universities will adequately train
future teachers to teach such subjects. Yet given the staffing trend within history
departments nationwide, there’s no longer any reason to believe this is so.

In fact, we’re
increasingly likely to see situations in which social studies teachers are
required to teach topics (the United States in World War I? the Constitutional
Convention?) that as college students they never encountered–or even could
encounter–through the race/class/gender prism that dominates the contemporary

Given the amount of
money that most state legislatures devote to public education, it’s hard to
imagine such a situation being satisfactory. When will the first state
legislature accept its appropriate oversight role and look into the matter?

Promotion of a more
open intellectual environment on campus provides a second reason for the
importance of ensuring a more pedagogically diverse approach to the American
past. It’s true, of course, that a professor whose research specialty is
African-American homosexuality might be a strong supporter of Ward Connerly’s
campaign against racial preferences; and a professor hired in U.S. military
history who has penned an admiring biography of William Westmoreland might be a
die-hard advocate of campus speech codes. But–as the University of Iowa History
Department debacle demonstrated–all other
things being equal, a department whose U.S. historians are more pedagogically
diverse is likely to be more ideologically diverse as well. In our era of
campus groupthink, we should do everything possible to encourage a greater
range of voices among the professoriate.

A final rationale
is transparency. News this week that the baseball writers had declined to elect
even one new member to the Hall of Fame rejuvenated the debate over steroid
use. Steroid apologists (such as the bulk of ESPN Hall of Fame voters) contend
that since there’s no way we can know who did or did not cheat, and since
there’s no way we can determine precisely how much using steroids helped an
individual ballplayer, voters should simply ignore the issue, and send the
likes of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens to Cooperstown. Tom
Verducci of Sports Illustrated, countering this line of thinking,
noted how many Hall of Fame players have criticized steroid use.”Where are all the former players,” he wondered,”arguing
for known steroid users to be in the Hall?Indeed, if steroids had so little effect, why
wasn’t there even one player who was open about his use at the time?

This same publicity standard could apply to major
history departments. If, in fact, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in purging
“traditional” approaches to the American past, why don’t we see departments and
colleges boasting of the fact? Departmental websites could explain about how
the study of U.S. history must occur through the prism of race, class, and
gender; or how the university eschews such old-fashioned topics as political,
diplomatic, or military history. But with rare exceptions (UCLA seems
to be one
) colleges have followed the opposite approach, doing everything
they can to obscure just how one-sided their approach to U.S. history has
become. For those parents, students, or alumni who don’t have the time to drill
down and comprehensively examine curriculum (as the NAS recently
for Texas schools), the assumption remains that all elements of the
American past continue to be taught.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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