Don’t Know Much About History: Colleges Teach History with Politics Left Out

Jonathan Bean

[Originally posted at The Independent Institute's Beacon blog]

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has released an in-depth study of the assigned readings  used in required American history survey courses at University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M. The authors divided the field of history into 11 areas, including social, political, economic, military, diplomatic and so on. NAS found it disturbing that the readings were obsessed with RCG (Race, Class, Gender) thus "crowding out" any knowledge of the Constitution or State Power (war, peace, government growth, foreign policy).

This study was possible because the Texas legislature passed a law to mandate the teaching of American history. College students not learning history? Pass a law. As I note, passing laws merely hands the chicken coop to the fox. But more on that later.

In an earlier post, "The Temptation of Bernanke: How Historical Memory Feeds Fed Power," I observed:

"Hayek noted that most policymakers are driven by mental images they got from textbooks, not economic theory. To sell' a policy or action, the rulers simply resort to historical shorthand passed down from one generation to another, often through government-approved K-12 textbooks and the introductory college text. Don’t kid yourself that they actually teach economics (of any kind) K-16 to the unwashed masses. Instead, it is subsumed—as Hayek knew—via the stories told by historians.

Example: The 'script' for the Great Depression goes like this: lack of banking regulation, “unfettered capitalism,” income inequality, and corporate “administered prices” led the nation into a great abyss. FDR came to power, spread the wealth and people felt better. That is still the version in 2011 despite decades of economic literature on the causes of the depression (the role of international gold standard, the Fed’s actions, branch banking bans that weakened the financial system, etc.)."

The good news from the NAS study of American history survey courses: if Hayek was right, then American college graduates--the next generation--will learn a lot about racial oppression, class, and gender (all from a left-wing perspective) but precious little about State Power. Forget what you think of State Power (force for good or source of evil). Americans will know NOTHING. I'll venture they know nothing already.

The bad news: the media elites repackages the textbook version of the Great Depression, World War II and other "lessons of history" and then applies them to present day issues. Even worse, they repeat - again and again - that "everyone knows" government spending creates jobs. Remember how WWII ended the Depression?

*The NAS recommends external review of core reading assignments. That won't happen because of the concern with academic freedom.

*The NAS also recommends an "essential reading list" that is balanced and surveys all aspects of history. This is the fox watching the chicken coop: How soon we forget that the conservative demand for National History Standards--adopted in the 1990s--was hijacked by the academic Left to obsess about the evils of capitalism, the long history of male badness, and "white privilege" and oppression of nonwhites.

I'm all for studying race, class and gender--I published Race and Liberty: The Essential Reader (2009) as a corrective to the textbook depiction of racial progress as a history of labor unions and "Progressives" "giving" us rights. No, no, no, I argued: the real champions of racial liberty were libertarians.

Still, I would never teach a survey course with politics and economics left out. Alas, I am the oddball historian. Again.

What do readers think? Is it better that Americans know little about history? Is it better than having them learn Zinn-style history on issues unrelated to race, class, gender?

I honestly don't know. The real solution is to get rid of the near-monopoly status the State has on college education. But academics are feeding whatever new model of education arises--and use accreditation bodies to enforce their Political Correctness. Where does that leave me?

In a very gloomy mood about the future.

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