Conservatives’ Criticism of History in the Classroom

There’s been quite a bit of discussion recently about the findings of the National Association of Scholars (NAS) regarding history instruction in the college classroom. Historians such as Ann M. Little (Historiann) and Jeremi Suri have rightly taken the NAS to task for its nonsensical methodology and conclusions.*

Nevertheless, the American Conservative, which supports the NAS’s endeavor, made an important point, although probably not the one it expected:

The argument is not that any particular work focusing on race, class, and gender is inappropriate. Rather, it’s that many students receive their only college-level instruction in American history from courses and sources that devote minimal attention to its central events, figures, and ideas. Grossman and Carey are much concerned with defending the richness of “historical scholarship and the collaborative ethos of historians who work in different fields and see the past in different ways.” They have little to say about what students ought to know.

This assertion of professorial autonomy would be less disturbing if students arrived at college with a thorough grounding in the basics. According to the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, however, only 12 percent of high school seniors were proficient in history. That means most college students lack the knowledge even to begin developing the ”nuanced and comprehensive view of the past and the dynamics of historical change” with which Grossman and Carey credit social history. The New York Times reported that only 2 percent of high school seniors could identify the issue involved in Brown v. Board of Education. By the way, the question included a quote from the decision.

The smart criticism of introductory courses that give short shrift to diplomacy, war, and legislation, then, isn’t that they’re politically biased. Rather, it’s that they tend to elevate the research interests of scholars over the educational needs of undergraduates, particularly non-majors who may have no other exposure to the subject. Opponents of old-fashioned methods have a point: there is more to American history than why Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, how Washington asserted executive power, or when Lee was defeated at Gettysburg. But students won’t learn much from scholars who “broaden and deepen” their focus, as Grossman and Carey put it, before they are taught to identify the elephants in the room.

I completely agree–many college students do lack the necessary background for understanding the basic framework of U.S. history. Many historians would argue that those introductory survey courses can’t provide comprehensive coverage (as I discussed here). I’ve become more and more convinced of that argument and have been contemplating how to restructure my survey courses to more effectively convey how historians think and practice history.

So, what of the American Conservative‘s criticisms about students’ lack of historical content knowledge? It should take it up with the parents, local school boards, textbook publishers, and politicians who want to keep children from learning what actually happened in the past.

* For example, if the NAS were to look at my Early U.S. survey syllabus, they would find that all of my readings centered on slavery because I deliberately chose to focus them on that topic. But the entirety, or even the majority, of the course is not on slavery.

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2 Replies to “Conservatives’ Criticism of History in the Classroom”

  1. Mark, your italicized comment at the end really gets to the heart of the NAS’s faulty methodology. IIRC, they did very minimal classroom observance, instead relying on syllabi and reading lists. But can one effectively judge or even recognize a course’s content (as a whole) simply by looking at a syllabus or reading list?

    Their overblown rhetoric makes it seem as though historians are teaching courses that are all about race, class, and gender while ignoring the standard political history. What they don’t realize is that (most) historians understand how all of those things are interrelated. Is anyone out there really teaching a course on, say, eighteenth-century America and not addressing the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, or even republicanism or natural law?

    I guess I just don’t understand the sort of zero-sum conception of history which the NAS holds.

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