Race, Class, and Gender in American History

I first encountered this subject while reading an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In sense, it states that:

The report by the National Association of Scholars and its affiliate, the Texas Association of Scholars, examined the textbooks and other readings for 85 sections of lower-division American history courses at the two schools in fall 2010. All too often, the report concluded, the readings gave students “a less-than-comprehensive picture of U.S. history,” with the situation “far more problematic” at UT than at A&M.

The article goes on and contends that:

At UT, 78 percent of the faculty members who taught the freshman and sophomore classes were deemed “high assigners” of race, class and gender readings, meaning that more than half of the content had such a focus. At A&M, 50 percent of faculty members were deemed high assigners of such material.

This topic is problematic it that it is being advanced by the National Association of Scholars, which is a conservative watchdog group that monitors the actions of educational institutions. My issue with this topic is one of suspicion: Why point out and criticize key categorical arguments used to analyze historical problems in American history? I realize they are saying schools assign too much work on race, class, and gender, but they fail to discuss the reasons why we historians do this. The United States has evolved, however, the process of evolution has faced a great deal of resistance.

The study of United States history is ugly. Discriminated racial minorities, voiceless and impoverished homeless, as well as exploited women were all change agents in helping progressive academics rethink the teaching of U.S. History.

I think back to two excellent quotes that define what is most troubling about this topic. James Baldwin once noted:

What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors.

W.E.B. Du Bois draws an excellent conclusion regarding the teaching of American history by referencing…

One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner … and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.

Their recommendations below are most troubling. It appears that the one and only dominate figure in US history seeks a return to the center stage: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant men (WASP).

The National Association of Scholars offered 10 recommendations for improving American history offerings:

1. History departments should review existing curricula, eliminate inappropriate overemphases, and repair gaps and underemphases.

2. Administrators or governing boards should convene an external review if history departments are unwilling.

3. Hire faculty members with a broader range of research interests.

4. Ensure that survey and introductory courses give comprehensive overviews.

5. History department members should collaborate to develop lists of readings that students are expected to study.

6. Design courses that contribute to a robust, evenhanded and reasonably complete curriculum.

7. Diversify graduate programs to ensure that they don’t unduly emphasize race, class and gender themes.

8. Other states should enact laws similar to the Texas requirement that students complete two courses in American history, but better accountability is needed to ensure that colleges’ teaching lines up with legal provisions.

9. Publishers should publish textbooks and anthologies that more adequately represent the full range of U.S. history.

10. Historians and professors of U.S. history should counter mission creep by returning to their primary task of handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.

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3 thoughts on “Race, Class, and Gender in American History

  1. You might add that people who believe themselves qualified to perfect society by reordering it are, ipso facto, capable of anything. And I mean anything.

  2. This is a really interesting “study.” Thoughts:

    (1) If you reduce the discussion of race, gender, and class in required higher ed courses, aren’t you also going to reduce the discussion of those topics in society at large?

    (2) As the Chronicle of Higher Ed article points out, how could you possibly be teaching politics without race/gender/class or race/gender/class without politics? These things go hand-in-hand.

    (3) As educators, we often have to pick and choose which topics we’re going to cover. We simply can’t cover it all. These three themes weave their way in-and-out of the most important moments in American history and provide interesting and unexpected lenses into those moments. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution cannot be covered without a discussion of race, gender, and class. The Civil War and Reconstruction cannot be covered without discussing these, nor can the Gilded Age, World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars and all of the rebuilding efforts that followed those. In sum, isn’t the history of America the history of race, gender, and class? Let’s take the Civil War for example. Aside from the obvious issue of slavery, think of the ways that race, gender, and class were impacted. The war was a poor man’s war because members of the upper classes were able to buy themselves out of service by providing a replacement. The war left thousands of women brotherless/fatherless/sonless/spouseless. These women had to create new lives for themselves. Etc. etc. etc. How do you tell the story of America without focusing heavily on these three issues? I’m even inclined to ask: “What other issues do you deem to be of equal or surpassing importance?”

    It seems to me that this whole perspective is probably based on the false notion that the U.S. is post-race, post-gender, and post-class: “Check it out! We have a (half) black man in the White House. We must be over these issues.” Obama’s presidency has only served to highlight how far we still need to go. I recall the myriad discussions on the various “news” networks during the 2012 election in which the notion of the “angry black man” was a topic for discussion in preparation for the debates. This fear of the “angry black man” clearly shows that Obama wasn’t playing on a level playing field. Romney’s comment about the 46% and the widening gap between the rich and poor in this country show that class is still a significant issue. Finally, the lack of women in key leadership positions (e.g., Fortune 500 CEOs, university presidents, etc.) as well as the issue of equal pay prove that feminism is still necessary.

    I’m proud that 78% of the history courses at my alma mater are assigning a lot of material in these areas. What’s wrong with the other 22%? Let’s get them on board…

  3. Reblogged this on HEEBZ and commented:
    Carson posted an interesting article the other day about a study that recommends that Texas A&M and the University of Texas pay less attention to the themes of race, class, and gender in their American history curricula. If you want to read me gagging legibly, check out my lengthy comment to his article.

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