The interview was originally published in The Daily Texan here.
The Daily Texan Editor’s note: Peter Wood serves as president of the National Association of Scholars, a New York-based organization. On Jan. 11, the National Association of Scholars published a report titled “Recasting History.” The 62-page report concludes that both UT and Texas A&M’s introductory U.S. history course offerings are overly focused on themes of race, class and gender. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Daily Texan: What do you want to happen as a result of your report?
Peter Wood: I hope the history departments at both [A&M and UT-Austin] will read the report seriously and reflect on it and come to some decision that they really do need to broaden the history offerings for the freshman and sophomores ... It may take some time for the dust to settle and for people to realize the changes are really quite desirable and that this isn’t something that would be that hard to do ... I’d like to see the Texas Legislature amend the legislation that requires students to take a year of American history and amend it by putting in provisions and oversight in review to make sure the courses being offered to meet the requirement actually meet the requirement.
DT: What was your own experience learning history as an undergraduate? How has that impacted the way you see the conclusions the study draws?
PW: ... I was an undergraduate student at a small liberal arts college on the East Coast called Haverford College. I attended Haverford from 1971 to 1975. At that time, the college had very few requirements and the only history courses that I took happened to be on African history. So, not too different from some of what gets offered at UT in the special topics courses. I was an anthropology major studying African history. I’d taken AP American History in high school, and that was the last time I formally studied American history. In the many years since then I’ve done a lot of reading in American history. I’m not doing this from the standpoint of someone who went to college in the good old days when everything was done right, far from it.
DT: Do you think [the lack of broad-based history courses] is a new problem? Also are you saying there were good old days when everything was done right?
PW: No, I don’t believe there were. There have been times when the teaching of American history has been done better than it is now and times it has been done worse. We’re dealing with the present, not the past. My comment is motivated by some critics who think we’re calling nostalgically for a return to some perfect past, but that’s not my experience.
DT: I read the study carefully and it does seem that one of the underpinning sentiments is the correcting of a lean in one direction. What is the direction you suggest going back toward?
PW: I’m not necessarily suggesting we return to anything, but the better path forward would be a thoughtful approach to teaching history that is generous towards all the areas of history ... It’s not that we think race, class and gender material shouldn’t be part of the general mix of things; it’s that there’s the disproportion those three parts get and a great neglect of all the other parts ... The focus on race, class and gender leaves no room.
DT: Who came up with the idea of conducting the study and why?
PW: I’m not entirely sure of the answer to that. In organizations like mine, ideas get floated all the time. I think the original idea may have come from [Stephen Balch, the retired founder of the National Association of Scholars], my predecessor.
DT: What was the reason for conducting the study?
PW: Texas has this law that requires students to take a full year of or one semester of American history and one semester of Texas history as an option. That’s a significant body of data. Texas passed this other law that [mandated] the syllabi of courses and curriculum vitae of faculty members [must be available within three clicks of the institution’s homepage]. What did we expect to find? We had no idea. Race, class and gender emerged from the data when we started collecting syllabi and seeing the patterns emerge. That’s the one that jumped out at us. My goodness, there are a lot of courses here on race, class and gender.
DT: [In the study] there’s the idea there’s a connection between the gap in college students’ learning and the [intense focus of the history classes on gender, race and class]. What proof do you have of that connection?
PW: I think that’s a matter less of proof than of interpretation.
DT: Do you think that could be true about some of the other conclusions the study draws?
PW: I feel endangered you’re distorting some of this. I’m a social scientist, which means I make some kind of claim to being a scientist, but social scientists are by their nature interpretative enterprisers. In order to reach conclusions, you have to reach plausible interpretations, but just because it’s an interpretation doesn’t mean it’s out of the blue or just someone’s opinion; it has to be deeply and closely grounded in connection to the facts. I understand my answer here is more long-winded than you would like, but you’re asking me a question of whether our observations about the history courses at these two universities are plausibly connected to the national problem of graduates not knowing very much. The answer has to lie in the realm of interpretation. We cannot not generalize from the specifics of course offerings and syllabi at universities to the whole world of some 19 million college students. There’s a certain lottery that is required when you make these things; it doesn’t mean that the conclusions are flimsy or up in the air.
DT: How do you come to the conclusion that learning about race, class and gender excludes learning about other themes based on the course readings?
PW: Let’s start with a simple administrative rule for colleges and universities. A class has only so many hours: hours people spend in the classroom, the amount of time teachers are in contact with students, the amount of work a student is going to do. It’s finite. If you teach more of x you’re going to teach less of y.
DT: Why didn’t you visit classes or contact professors?
PW: We were deliberately trying to do a study that was objective and that did not depend on making up lists of opinions. If we had gone around and visited classes, which classes would we have visited? How long would we have stayed? ... Visiting classes was practically impossible. We also made sure everything we looked at was based on public sources. ... Also, would we have been welcome?
DT: Would it have made sense to send survey questions — the same questions — to all the professors being scrutinized?
PW: To what end? We wanted to know what the faculty members had actually taught, not what they said about what had been taught.
DT: But how can you know what they said about those books?
PW: We cannot know what they said about those books. It’s perfectly true we acknowledge that we don’t know, we’re not omniscient. What we do as social scientists is create a research design and work within that research design. What’s beyond the research is beyond it, and if someone else wants to ask the faculty members involved, “How do you feel about what you taught?”, what’s that going to show? I don’t believe its going to show much of anything important.
DT: At what point, if you have a limited amount of data available to you, do you decide this experiment cannot be thorough because the sources of data that would provide a complete picture are predominately off-limits and if we tried to pursue them, they would not be objective?
PW: The issue here is creating a research project in which the data that’s available is used to address specific questions that pertain to that data. We did not set out to report on what students learn in history courses at these two universities ... If you’re taking a course on particle physics you’re probably not going to learn much about AM music. The subjects of the course material covered tells you something about what students are going to learn. Now, if you take a course on American history that focuses on race, class and gender, all the readings focus on race, class and gender, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to come away with an enriched understanding of American diplomacy, American economy, American religion. You’ll get little bits of pieces but you won’t get the whole picture. Is that an assumption? Yes. Is it a wild and crazy assumption? No, it’s not. It’s based on common sense and observation. All the people working on this report were college professors. We know what we do. And we know how colleges work.