Friday, January 11, 2013

Everybody's Entitled To Their Opinion, But ...

In higher education, as in most fields, there is a broad proliferation of opinions. This is particularly true in the areas of the humanities & the social sciences, where the questions at issue are fundamental to human interests, passions, and identities. Politics, John Stuart Mill once wrote, is a subject which no one, however ignorant, thinks himself incompetent to discuss.

So it should come as no surprise that an outside organization with no particular expertise in History (the National Association of Scholars) has decided that it should conduct its own audit of American history courses as taught at two large public universities in Texas. Given the NAS' reputation for being ideologically right of center, it is perhaps not surprising that the report concludes in part that there is an "inordinate focus" on issues of race, class, and gender - hot-button issues for political ideologues on both the left and the right, red meat for tribal warriors who like to fight about such things.

Anyone who has been around the history profession for the last 20+ years would hardly find this "finding" surprising. Like all disciplines, history tends to shift its focus and emphasis over time, and issues of race, class, and gender have been ascendant for some time. In my field (international politics), thirty years ago we studied arms races and great-power alliance politics, and paid hardly any attention to terrorism and ethnic conflict. Today you'd be hard-pressed to find much research in the central publications of the field on arms races and arms control negotiations.

Whether the shift in history towards social history and away from other areas (notably military history, which people on the right often pine for) is a good thing or a bad thing is something every citizen is entitled to an opinion on. Members of the NAS are certainly entitled to theirs. On the other hand, what is the standard against which they are measuring "inordinate focus"? You can download their report here if you're interested; it's 64 pages long, insuring that relatively few will read the whole thing.

The report creates the illusion of objective scientific analysis, with color bar graphs and convincing-looking numbers, but in fact what they're touting as "fact" is extremely problematic. How do you measure how much of the content of a course focuses on race, gender, and class (what they have conveniently labelled "RCG history") as opposed to other topics? Why focus on these particular issues to start with? Is there a comprehensive list of all possible topics in history, and how do we decide which are most or least important? Are their operationalizations (a fancy term for "methods of measuring") valid?

This is the kind of "research" guaranteed to produce the results which the authors are looking for, and as such shouldn't be taken seriously. There are so many questions to be answered prior to any kind of substantive analysis of a curriculum - an "analysis" of the kind offered by the NAS is meaningless without those answers. At worst, it's mendacious, in that it gives the imprimatur of "science" and "research" to what is essentially a half-formed tribal argument.

Worse, from an academic standpoint it's not clear what authority the authors have to bring to the table. None of the three authors is an historian. One (NAS president Peter Wood, whose name goes on all major publications) is an anthropologist. A second is an NAS staff member with a BA in politics from King's College (where, I'm guessing, she didn't take American history). The third, Richard Fonte, isn't comprehensively identified anywhere, but may be the former president of the College of Lake County who resigned in 2007 after a fight with his own faculty. Yes, all citizens are entitled to their opinions - but if this same group had written a critique of, say, chemistry curricula they would have been roundly laughed at.

If you want to contribute to (or even start) a national conversation about what students should be learning in American history, lobbing ill-considered grenades is a terrible way to go about it. If you have a vision for what American history should be like, say so, and see how many people you can convince. Be prepared to engage in debate with historians who have spent their lives studying the subject. Don't spit out "research" that only contributes to ongoing tribal divides and accomplishes nothing.

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