Teaching of history at UT and Texas A&M focuses to much on race and gender

Austin American-Statesman:
When a report on American history classes at the state’s two public flagship universities was released this month, it quickly became clear that its sponsors were pursuing more than an intellectual exercise.

The National Association of Scholars and its Texas affiliate want the state Legislature to act on the report’s recommendation that public institutions of higher learning put less emphasis in history courses on race, class and gender and more on political, diplomatic and military matters.

Critics, including some faculty members at the University of Texas and Texas A&M; University, are questioning the study’s methodology and the academic credentials of one of the principal researchers. The dispute also underscores the larger issue of just how far lawmakers should go in specifying what must be taught, the details of which have traditionally been left to campuses and their faculty members.

If last year’s elections are a guide, the makeup of the Legislature could be more conservative than it has been in recent years, which could bode well for proponents of less emphasis on race, class and gender in history classes. Thus far, no measure has been filed along the lines of the report’s recommendations.

“We turn to our friends in the Texas Legislature and say, ‘How ’bout it? We need some amendments here,’” Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, said at the report’s official unveiling Jan. 10 in Austin. He was referring to a 1971 law that requires students at public colleges and universities to earn six credits, typically by taking two courses, in American history.

The timing of the report’s release, on the third day of the legislative session, reflected a political calculation, as did the setting: the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s policy orientation for state legislators. The foundation is an Austin-based nonprofit with a free-market, small-government philosophy that resonates with Gov. Rick Perry, many state lawmakers and some of the governor’s appointees to university governing boards. UT’s and A&M;’s boards have pursued a number of controversial policies recently, including a professor-by-professor accounting of costs and revenues.

Officials of the National Association of Scholars and the Texas Association of Scholars said they spent two years analyzing all textbooks and other readings for 85 sections of freshman and sophomore U.S. history courses at A&M; and UT that satisfied the state requirement. They were able to undertake the review because Texas has a law that requires an unusual degree of disclosure, said Richard Fonté, an author of the report who was previously president of Austin Community College and director of a program at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Enacted in 2009, it requires faculty members at public universities to post the syllabus, reading assignments and other information for each course on the school’s publicly accessible website.

A total of 625 reading assignments were tallied, and after taking duplications into account, that worked out to 499 different titles. Each reading was classified into one or more of a dozen categories, including military history, political history, social history with gender emphasis, social history with racial or ethnic emphasis, religious history and so forth.

The analysis found that 78 percent of the UT faculty members teaching the courses were “high assigners” of race, class and gender readings, meaning that more than half of the content included a focus in those areas. At A&M;, 50 percent of faculty members were deemed high assigners.

Moreover, 89 percent of faculty members assigned none of the 100 “milestone documents” of U.S. history listed by the National Archives and Records Administration, the report said. Those include the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
I tend to see the focus on race class and gender as more about self esteem within groups than a focus on events that shaped our country.  The lack of focus on military history is apparent when you see the shape of debates on how to deal with those who are war with us.  There is also widespread ignorance of important documents in American history and the men who shaped them.  While it is should be obvious in passing what the race, class and gender of the participants in history were, the real focus should be about the events people shaped.  The wrong focus in these courses is why many of these students still don't know much about history after completing them.


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