The Obsession with Social History

Richard Pells

The Chronicle of Higher Education originally published Richard Pells' article here. Richard Pells is professor of history emeritus at the University of Texas. He is the author of four books on modern American culture, most recently Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies, and the Globalization of American Culture (Yale University Press, 2011).

The Chronicle also published
 a "counterpoint" article by James Grossman and Elaine Carey, which is available here.

The National Association of Scholars recently released a report excoriating the teaching of American history at the University of Texas at Austin and, to a lesser extent, at Texas A&M University at College Station.

The report argues that there is an almost monomaniacal preoccupation in American-history courses withon the issues of race, class, gender, and ethnicity. Meanwhile, it argues, not enough attention is being paid to the history of American politics, economics, and culture, and the military.

The report has caused considerable fury among University of Texas historians,and it has apparently incensed American historians at other universities as well. Its critics have accused the association's writers of being conservative assailants who don't know what they're talking about.

It's true that the NAS is a conservative organization. Yet being conservative does not by itself make an organization uninformed or invalidate its report.

I am neither a conservative nor a member of the association. But I am an American historian who taught at the University of Texas for 40 years, from 1971 to 2011. And based on my own experiences there, I believe the report's main arguments are largely correct.

These issues are by no means unique to Texas—they describe the situation at most history departments in America ever since the 1960s and 1970s. The obsession with social history originated in the 1960s, inspired by then-graduate students and young historians who wanted to concentrate on groups and classes that had been traditionally oppressed and whose history had been overlooked. For them, American history was too elitist; it needed instead to be taught and written about "from the bottom up."

Nevertheless, what has developed at the University of Texas over the past 20 years is an almost oppressive orthodoxy and a lack of intellectual diversity among the history faculty. The result is that (with a few notable exceptions, like the work of the presidential historian H.W. Brands) very few courses are taught or books written by the current faculty on the history of American government, economic development, or culture and the arts, or on America's strategic and tactical participation in wars, particularly in the 20th century. Indeed, the Texas department has not employed a military historian since the 1970s.

These are all subjects of supreme importance in understanding the evolution and current state of America. One cannot expect either undergraduate or graduate students to fully comprehend the complexities of American history without serious and extensive consideration of such topics.

In short, to paraphrase the columnist George Will, academics and especially specialists in American history at Texas are in favor of diversity in everything but thought. This is not just an acerbic quotation, nor is the NAS report to be dismissed as a right-wing polemic. The crises of intellectual conformity that Will and the association are depicting are endemic to academic life all over the country.

Yet the University of Texas is facing special difficulties. The problem in Austin is that the history department, and UT in general, are in peril. Texas has an extremely conservative legislature, which has already intruded on how faculty teach and on defining "accountability," and has contemplated a host of other educational "reforms." At the same time, state support for the university has been severely reduced over the past several years.

I do not, nor do my former colleagues in the history department, think that the legislature or any other outside group should interfere with how to structure a curriculum, or apply financial pressure to force faculty members to teach certain courses in certain ways. Such interference would be a dangerous infringement on academic freedom.

Still, what University of Texas historians need to do is stop railing against the report and start re-examining their hiring practices. Historians, like all academics, tend to clone themselves when they employ new faculty members. They think that since my field is vital, we need more people teaching the same thing. But what American historians at UT really should do is expand their far-too-limited intellectual horizons.

That means abandoning their current political and intellectual biases, opening themselves up to new subjects and new ideas, and recruiting new sorts of faculty members. Only then will the history department fulfill the true mission of a great university by fostering debate and exploring alternative ways of understanding America's past and present.

I do not question that those faculty members who specialize only in the plight of women, African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are in any way ignoring legitimate problems in American history from which those groups have long suffered. Moreover, academic historians before the 1960s ignored the experiences of those groups for far too many decades.

But I am arguing that the National Association of Scholars' report is not a document that should be sneered at or ignored. Rather, what the history department at the University of Texas needs (and what history departments all over the country could benefit from) is a willingness—in fact, an eagerness—to hire people who are pursuing different interests. And who don't simply replow the same topics, teach the same types of courses, and reinforce the same (as Orwell said about the ideologues of the 1930s) "smelly" orthodoxies.

If American historians at the University of Texas fail to open themselves up to different topics and different perspectives, they could face even more stringent meddling from the state Legislature. Even more important, they will be doing a disservice to their students, who deserve to encounter a variety of points of view, and then decide for themselves what they believe.

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