Unbiasing American History

Ashley Thorne

Ashley Thorne's article was originally published in First Things here

How do American colleges and universities teach American history? Conservatives may have a ready answer: poorly. But a ready answer can just as readily be deflected. At the National Association of Scholars (NAS) we decided to find out, as precisely as possible, how history is actually taught at two major universities.

Last month we published the findings of our study “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?”, which examines freshman and sophomore U.S. history courses at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University. We found an extraordinary emphasis on race, class, and gender. At A&M 50 percent of history course material and at UT 78 percent of the assigned readings revolve around race, class, and gender.

Howard Zinn, Gary Nash, and Eric Foner are assigned fairly often in these courses; Walter McDougall, Bernard Bailyn, and John Lewis Gaddis, not at all. Likewise, primary source documents are relatively rare. The U.S. National Archives contain what are considered to be the hundred most important documents in United States history. Seventy-seven of them make no appearance at all in these courses; the twenty-three that do show up appear in the syllabi of only five instructors. The Louisiana Purchase Treaty, the Missouri Compromise, the Monroe Doctrine, the Homestead Act? None.

Race, class, and gender are important, but students can’t live on an intellectual diet of Abigail Adams and Fredrick Douglass alone. They need to learn something about the other dimensions of history: diplomacy, economics, politics, war, the history of ideas, scientific discovery, and religion.

We have received fierce pushback from the academic guild on our report. The executive director of the American Historical Association, James Grossman, for example, chided us in the Chronicle of Higher Education for supposedly ignoring the complexity of books that touch on race, or class, or women—as if we believed that a book on Abigail Adams was exclusively about women and not also about politics. Not at all. That said, if all you learn in college about the Adams administration and the Federalist period is that Abigail Adams was a political force in Washington who advocated for the property rights of married women, you have missed a few things.

Grossman also suggested that the NAS wants history to be all about white men. Our report calls precisely for recognition of historical complexity and the presentation, within the limits of freshman and sophomore history courses, of something closer to a comprehensive account. That’s a history that includes slavery and abolitionists, but also international treaties, financial booms and busts, the transformation of an agricultural nation into an industrial one, trusts and trust-busting, insurrections and wars, great ideas from Jonathan Edwards to William James, the changing role of government in citizens’ lives, technological breakthroughs from the cotton gin to the atom bomb, and the claims and contentions of faith among the American people.

We set out, with no idea of what we would find, to see how these universities were meeting Texas’ requirements for public college and university students in American history. The emphasis on race, class, and gender emerged entirely from the course syllabi, not our preconceptions. And our methods were scrupulous. We read all the readings (625 of them) in all the relevant courses and triple-checked with independent analysts all the classifications.

It would be very hard to find fault with our actual methods, which has led to our critics grasping for straws. Jeremi Suri, a UT professor, faults us for not visiting the classes, as though dropping in on a class would necessarily be a better measure of a semester’s content than the instructor’s syllabus.

Perhaps the most troubling response is the oft-repeated praise of subjectivity. As phrased by UT history professor Joan Neuberger, “There is no history that is politically neutral.” Or again, from UT professor of journalism Robert Jensen: “We all politicize history.” Or by “Jacqueline,” who commented on the NAS website, “Objectivity divorced from a perspective is not possible for us humans.” These are variations on the postmodernist theme that there is no truth, but only the clash of perspectives.

No study, no matter how scrupulous, can overcome this ideological idée fixe. Of course­, while perfect neutrality may be beyond our reach as limited human beings, we can—and should—strive to give full and unbiased accounts of history. The “no neutrality is possible” mantra simply exalts political partisanship under the false pretense of intellectual sophistication. College students in Texas and everywhere else deserve better. They deserve teachers committed to bringing forward not just favored fragments of the truth, but the whole truth.

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