Race/Gender Historians on the Defense

AHA.jpgThe National Association of Scholars issued a significant study of U.S. history teaching at the  University of Texas-Austin and Texas A & M last month that has evoked heated commentary from the history profession.  The report examines basic history instruction and instructors at the two flagship campuses of the Texas university system and determines that an inordinate emphasis on race, class, and gender (RRG) social history has set in, distorting U.S. history to the point of diminishing other topics and approaches (military history, intellectual history, diplomatic . . .). Not a surprising finding, to be sure, the value of the study resting on the data it assembled on course topics and readings plus the self-declared expertise of the instructors.  (I gave the authors feedback on the report last year, emphasizing the imbalance question and advising that they withhold judgments of the quality of race-class-gender scholarship and teaching.)

‘We Are Not Going There’

As we might expect whenever issues of race, class, and gender research and teaching come up in academia, particularly when a critic of them steps forward, the report evoked anger and dismissal.  The conclusion to an online commentary by University of Texas history professor Joan Neuberger neatly exemplifies the reception:

“The National Association of Scholars claims to want broader, more inclusive courses in US History, but since we are already teaching broadly and including the topics they ask for, and since their report seems designed to prove the opposite, one can’t help but suspect that the real goal of this report is to swing the pendulum all the way back to a study of history that erases the discussion of class, gender, and race, from the curriculum.  We are not going there.”

Such “suspicions” and accusations are no surprise to conservatives, of course.  The NAS has undergone them ever since its found in 1987, and it may be habitual for them to rebut the indignation and denigration in the comments section or at the NAS web site (as President Peter Wood did).  But one response to the report isn’t so easily managed, nor should it be.  This is because it bears an official imprimatur, the standpoint of the American Historical Association.  Like other responses, it distorts and insinuates, but raises the stakes by aligning them with the largest professional organization in the country.  More importantly, that rhetoric isn’t just a case of sloppy or hasty labor.  It has a specific aim, that is, not to refute the findings of the study, but to discredit the researchers who derived them.

The response appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education January 28 under the title “An Undisciplined Report on the Teaching of History,” with James Grossman and Elaine Carey listed as co-authors.  The Chronicle identifies Grossman as Executive Director of the American Historical Association and Carey as vice-president of the Teaching Division of the Association (as well as chair of history as St. John’s).  The titles grant the response paper a representative status, as if it were the opinion of the organization itself.  The summary conclusion makes explicit Grossman and Carey’s claim to speak for historians at large:

“. . . the report itself 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.”

The Many Factual Errors

Richard Fonte, one of the authors, has a lengthy comment on the article that corrects some of its many errors of fact.  Those errors are fundamental that they turn us toward the rhetoric of the statement, the question not of what Grossman and Carey’s words say, but what they do.  In this passage, note the final pronoun, “our.”  It plays a crucial positioning role in the whole discussion, an us vs. them set-up dividing the NAS authors from historians per se.  It implies, “WE are the historians, YOU are the outsiders who don’t understand history and can’t be taken seriously.”  One might pass by it as a minor and innocuous word, but in truth it has a sweeping territorial meaning that puts the report authors at a professional disadvantage.  With this mini-argument-from-authority, people who are not accredited, employed, and practicing teachers and researchers of history lose their standing to talk about the field.  Given the data in the report, however, the point rings hollow.  True, outsiders often misconstrue academic work, but in this case the NAS report avoided that by collecting ample data from coursework and deriving categories from the faculty themselves and the readings they assigned.  It tried to respect the information the instructors themselves provided, not to judge them from the outside.

When Grossman and Carey characterize the classifications used in the NAS study, once more we find rhetorical force taking priority over propositional content.  Consider these two sentences, noting particularly the word “exclusively”:

“Any historian 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 political, intellectual, religious, diplomatic, or military history.”

And: “The Great Depression, too, falls into the ‘class’ category, as any study of that period will by definition focus exclusively on workers and employers rather than on banking, politics, and diplomacy, not to mention history of ideas or politics.”

As Fonte points out, these statements are flatly false.  The report did, indeed, allow for multiple classifications of courses, readings, and instructors, for instance, placing Abigail Adams’ writings under “political history” as well as “gender history,” not placing them only under the latter (as Grossman and Carey imply).  The word “exclusively” (and “merely” and “solely”) is inappropriate to the study, which didn’t assert that race-class-gender topics had eliminated diplomatic, economic, and other histories, only that they had reduced and diminished them.  The primary assumption is that a full picture of U.S. history involves multiple topics and objects of study, and the conclusion of the report is that RCG matters dominate the field and produce a tendentious version of the past.

A Rhetorical Trick

Why, then, say “exclusively”?  For what it implies about the mental shortcomings of the report authors.  In alleging that the NAS report relies on exclusive-ness, Grossman and Carey remove the balanced-approach outlook and paint the authors as simplistic, either/or thinkers, people who don’t understand the complexities and inter-connections of history.  In the first example above, the term frames the report this way: a historian who quite modestly and reasonably includes “black people” in his work is stigmatized by NASers as wholly race-fixated–how bigoted!  We can hear the voice of the professional historian cry out, “These fools don’t even recognize slavery as a historical phenomenon with political, religious, economic, and military aspects.”  That leaves the target of the rhetorical set-up in the hapless position of objecting, “No, no, that isn’t what we meant at all.”  They stand accused not of error but of ridiculousness, and we know how effective it is for an object of ridicule to insist that people stop laughing.

That demeaning rhetorical tactic takes a distinct form at the end of the essay.  It works by invoking a practice opposite to their own, and then to associate it with the targeted group.  The practice invoked is so utterly misguided or vicious that a merely implied connection dispels the group.  Here we have two examples:

“Civil War historians study the home front and the process of emancipation rather than accepting outdated references to Lincoln’s freeing the slaves all by himself . . .”

And: “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 . . .”

What is the point of these far-flung allusions?  To affirm that the very practices to which the NAS objects have rescued our nation from racist and childish understandings of our country.  In assailing RCG history, critics thereby repeat the crimes of the past, perhaps out of a sinister desire to restore those racist and sexist attitudes.

This is a smear, of course, and the remarkable thing is how such a thin insinuation survives so long after those sins of history have been repeatedly exploded.  How long has it been since anybody believed that emancipation came purely from the hand of Lincoln, since anybody took the film Gone with the Wind seriously?  We’ve had decades of dismantling American exceptionalism, of exposing George Washington’s flaws, of teaching American history from the “bottom,” not the “top.”  The tempting reply to this tactic is, “What in the world are you talking about?”  But perhaps it is better to say, “Why bring Parson Weems into this discussion?  We want more diplomatic, economic, political, and intellectual history in the classroom, not more sentimental myth.  Let’s debate whether or not we should, not draw in fantastical comparisons that have nothing to do with us.”

Typical Response to Conservative/Libertarian Critics

I think that these rhetorical maneuvers have become common in academia’s engagement with conservative and libertarian critics, especially with those who criticize politicization and identity studies.  This rhetoric itself should become a discrete topic, and the Grossman-Carey example should be the centerpiece of a formal complaint to the American Historical Association.  The Association has a “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct” listed on its web site, and it includes this sober paragraph:

“Historians celebrate intellectual communities governed by mutual respect and constructive criticism. The preeminent value of such communities is reasoned discourse–the continuous colloquy among historians holding diverse points of view who learn from each other as they pursue topics of mutual interest.  A commitment to such discourse–balancing fair and honest criticism with tolerance and openness to different ideas–makes possible the fruitful exchange of views, opinions, and knowledge.” (Emphasis in original)

The NAS study fulfills the requirements of “reasoned discourse.”  It has an ordinary aim (to determine relative emphases in basic history instruction) and it derives an objective conclusion.  Historians may dispute the design, method, and interpretations, but professionalism calls for respectful disagreement, not easy distortions and demeaning associations.  The report aims for “constructive criticism,” and it offers a “point of view” at odds with the academic history establishment, but it works by empirical study, not vilification.  The validity of the findings is a genuine question, but these officers of the AHA have responded defensively, not with “tolerance and openness to different ideas.”  NAS leaders should draft a letter detailing the condescending and un-collegial nature of this reply and send it to every past president of the Association as well as to heads of affiliated organizations such as the American Council of Learned Societies.  In it, the NAS should say that while it welcomes sound criticism of the report, Grossman and Carey’s fails.  Worse than that, it derides the authors of the report, thereby discouraging further efforts of constructive criticism–the very opposite of the AHA’s professed position.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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One thought on “Race/Gender Historians on the Defense”

  1. as a long term active adjunct professor of sociology (26 years), i must concur with the inital article and here is why…Race, class and gender are material in nature and therefore more “palatable” and debatable at the sophomoric level. Intellectually, history and sociology particularly have fallen prey to public appetites and discourse compromising intellectual vigor (concepts and idelogies).
    At the academic university level there must be discusssion at the abstract level and unlike our watered down fast tracked diploma mill education “across the curriculum,” we must analyzesubjects of race, gender and class as philosophical and ideological history than discourse on equal rights and the common good. after all what is “scholarly research” if not rsearch that is grounded in ideas and not statitics that stimulate cognitive dissonance at the material level.

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