Response to Professor Neuberger on Recasting History

Peter Wood

Editor's note: Joan Neuberger, professor of history at the University of Texas, has written a blog post about the National Association of Scholars' new report Recasting History at the blog Not Even Past. Below is NAS president Peter Wood's response to Professor Neuberger. The "Add new comment" feature on the Not Even Past blog was not working when he tried to post it there.

There are so many mischaracterizations in this post it is hard to know where to begin.  Maybe here:

“As a university professor, I consider it a primary part of my job to teach students to read carefully, to learn to understand multiple sides of any historical issue, and to draw conclusions based on the documents they read, rather than on the assumptions they bring to class. The NAS report fails to do all of those things. If a student turned in this study to a college level course, I suspect they would be asked, at the very least, to rethink the questions they are asking and to do more research.”

The study in question took about two years.  It examined every single one of the 85 courses that these two universities put forward as meeting the state requirement.  We took the syllabi from these 85 courses and acquired all 625 of the assigned readings—625 of them.  We read and classified those 625 readings, using in the first cut an independent researcher otherwise detached from the study.  Then several other researchers independently reviewed his classifications.   We prized rigor at every stage of review and analysis.

For Professor Neuberger to claim (on what basis?) that the NAS report wouldn’t pass the elementary tests of evidence that he expects his students to meet in college level work suggests several possibilities:  (1) she never read our report and is talking out of her hat; (2) she is not truthful about the standards to which she holds her own students. 

As for drawing conclusions based on the documents rather than “assumptions,” I would make two points.  First, we began the study with no particular interest in race, class, and gender as foci of courses in American history.  We didn’t know what we would find.  Race, class, and gender emerged conspicuously from the first cut of the data and we subsequently framed some of our questions around these themes.  The report wasn’t shaped by assumptions but by the observed realities.  Second, we would wish Professor Neuberger would follow her own stricture.  She has made an audacious and wholly inaccurate assumption about our report—that it was founded on ideological animus—and built the entirety of her commentary on that phantasm. 

A great many college history professors who teach in the race, class, gender area regard their focus as important and legitimate and are in no hurry to deny that that is indeed their focus.  Is it such a surprise that a systematic examination of lower-level American history courses at two major universities demonstrates that among the consequences of this emphasis is diminished attention to other topics of study?  We haven’t called for leaving these perspectives out of teaching American history, but only for ensuring that the rest of history also receives due attention.

Professor Neuberger links us to a supposed opinion that historians should “offer a less critical view of US history” and focus instead on “positive elements of the past.”

To the contrary, we have not called for teaching “positive elements of the past,” but for teaching history in its fullness, with neither antagonism nor cheerleading. 

Numerous historians these days, taking their cues from post-Enlightenment epistemologies, deny the possibility of a de-politicized study of history, which leaves them, like Professor Neuberger, ill-equipped to respond to a report that calls for teaching history from a perspective detached from any form of advocacy.  Professor Neuberger confidently declares, “There is no history that is politically neutral.”  How would she know? Has she ever tried it?  The best they can do is imagine that we don’t really mean it—that we have a hidden agenda in favor of advocating something they don’t like.  But we do mean it.  We aren’t looking to replace one form of partisanship with another but with a sturdy effort to avoid partisanship.  Imagine that.

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