Peter Wood

A National Association of Scholars report published Jan. 9 concluded that introductory U.S. and Texas history courses at UT and A&M are overly focused on themes of race, gender and class. “I’d like to see the Texas Legislature amend the legislation that requires students to take a year of American history and amend it by putting in provisions and oversight in review to make sure the courses being offered to meet the requirement actually meet the requirement,” Peter Wood, president of NAS and a co-author of the report, told the Texan.

Among the NAS report’s recommendations were for historians to “publish better textbooks” and for UT and A&M to “hire new faculty members who have a solid understanding of the broad narrative of American history.” If Texas legislators run their fingers down UT professors’ syllabi as the NAS president hopes, it would not be the first time in the school’s history that those in the Capitol (and the UT System Regents) abused their down-the-street proximity to decide who may teach what books and subjects in our classrooms. Throughout the 20th century, UT professors have been called in to defend themselves against accusations of radical economic beliefs like communism and to justify their choices of literature to teach. 

But before the lawmakers act today, they should consider the gaping deficiencies in the NAS study. It relies upon data from only two sources: the syllabi and curricula vitae of UT and A&M professors  (18 at UT) who happened to teach introductory U.S. and Texas history courses in fall 2010. A 2009 Texas law mandated that professors’ syllabi and CVs be available on a public university’s website within three clicks from the home page  to facilitate exactly this kind of examination. The NAS researchers went chart-happy. Beyond lists of names, the researchers compiled lists of “RCG” books — those that the researchers deemed focus on race, class and gender. They sent the specimen list to the American Textbook Council and asked that organization to analyze the predominate themes in the textbooks.  The researchers sent a list of non-textbooks to a reviewer who was “given a coding sheet with all reading assignments on them and instructions to code all readings into as many categories as he thought reasonable.”

More coding ensued. And Excel document-making. The allegedly agenda-driven professors and their race, class and gender-focused books were put into one of 11 categories: diplomatic and international relations history, economic and business history, military history, philosophical and intellectual history, political history, religious history, scientific, environmental and technological history, social history with gender emphasis and social history with racial history—other. 

Courses such as “Mexican American Women 1910 to Present” and “Race and Revolution” exclude key documents like the Mayflower Compact, Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

When the Texan asked Wood if he knew most students who attended Texas public schools had covered those documents to the letter in 11th grade American history, Wood replied, “That wasn’t the subject of our examination.”

Other considerations that were excluded from the NAS report: what the professors said to students about the books they assigned, and, for that matter, what the students who took the courses learned about those texts. Why was that information omitted? The researchers did not, in the course of their study, ever talk to Texas history professors or Texas college students, or visit a classroom in Austin or College Station.

UT history professor H.W. Brands’ American history textbook was lauded in the study. Nonetheless, Brands disagrees with its conclusions and describes how  knowing what book was assigned while ignoring other material that may have been covered outside of a textbook could lead to problematic oversight. “I think that everyone ought to read Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. It has driven history, but to make the naïve assumption that I am promoting it is absurd,” Brands said.

The report betrays not an interest in objectivity but calculated sloppiness. From a scientific perspective — which the report makes claims to — it was never peer-reviewed and it describes its specimens (our professors) using language like “all too often” or “inordinate.” It refers to “categories well-established in the discipline” without citation. It neglects to address the fact that 35 percent of the surveyed courses are specialty courses often dealing with race, class and gender specifically but does not subtract this data from the rest, driving RCG counts when the average across all courses are taken. It never provides any framework for how the textbooks were assessed. The study itself cost $15,750 to produce. Twelve contributors funded the study with gifts ranging between $100 to $5000. Among them were UT alumni and former professors.

What the study never says explicitly is that its objection to race, class and gender is not due to those themes’ supposed overabundance in course syllabi but the fact that viewing history through those perspectives puts important figures in an unflattering light. “From the perspective of these people, students are not getting the same history they did,” said Brands, who was judged in the study to be a “limited assigner” of race, class and gender. But understanding American history from the perspective of race, class and gender teaches us facts that help us understand how far we’ve come as a nation. In many ways, this country’s primary ideological contribution to the world is the ability to transcend race, class and gender strictures that inhibited our ancestors without ignoring them altogether. To suggest that students are incapable of understanding that complexity is insulting. Perhaps the NAS authors don’t understand that themselves. After all, theirs is an organization committed to intellectual freedom, but one that also contradictorily argues for the Legislature to step in and choose the books professors teach.  

Ultimately, the study offers a false dichotomy between military, religious and political history and race, class and gender history. The NAS authors perceive themselves as a counterbalance to prevailing liberal thinking, when they themselves, veiled behind a quasi-quantative analysis, are simply seeking a narrow view of history, just as they believe the professors they target do. The historical framework their study suggests provide an understanding of American history that is limiting. It is those kinds of oversimplified ideas, no matter which political inclination they are rooted in, that we urge UT students not to accept.

Editor’s note: Peter Wood serves as president of the National Association of Scholars, a New York-based organization. On Jan. 11, the National Association of Scholars published a report titled “Recasting History.” The 62-page report concludes that both UT and Texas A&M’s introductory U.S. history course offerings are overly focused on themes of race, class and gender. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 


Daily Texan: What do you want to happen as a result of your report?

Peter Wood: I hope the history departments at both [A&M and UT-Austin] will read the report seriously and reflect on it and come to some decision that they really do need to broaden the history offerings for the freshman and sophomores ... It may take some time for the dust to settle and for people to realize the changes are really quite desirable and that this isn’t something that would be that hard to do ... I’d like to see the Texas Legislature amend the legislation that requires students to take a year of American history  and amend it by putting in provisions and oversight in review to make sure the courses being offered to meet the requirement actually meet the requirement. 


DT: What was your own experience learning history as an undergraduate? How has that impacted the way you see the conclusions the study draws?

PW: ... I was an undergraduate student at a small liberal arts college on the East Coast called Haverford College. I attended Haverford from 1971 to 1975. At that time, the college had very few requirements and the only history courses that I took happened to be on African history. So, not too different from some of what gets offered at UT in the special topics courses. I was an anthropology major studying African history. I’d taken AP American History in high school, and that was the last time I formally studied American history. In the many years since then I’ve done a lot of reading in American history. I’m not doing this from the standpoint of someone who went to college in the good old days when everything was done right, far from it.


DT: Do you think [the lack of broad-based history courses] is a new problem? Also are you saying there were good old days when everything was done right?

PW: No, I don’t believe there were. There have been times when the teaching of American history has been done better than it is now and times it has been done worse. We’re dealing with the present, not the past. My comment is motivated by some critics who think we’re calling nostalgically for a return to some perfect past, but that’s not my experience.


DT: I read the study carefully and it does seem that one of the underpinning sentiments is the correcting of a lean in one direction. What is the direction you suggest going back toward?

PW: I’m not necessarily suggesting we return to anything, but the better path forward would be a thoughtful approach to teaching history that is generous towards all the areas of history ... It’s not that we think race, class and gender material shouldn’t be part of the general mix of things; it’s that there’s the disproportion those three parts get and a great neglect of all the other parts ... The focus on race, class and gender leaves no room.


DT: Who came up with the idea of conducting the study and why?

PW: I’m not entirely sure of the answer to that. In organizations like mine, ideas get floated all the time. I think the original idea may have come from [Stephen Balch, the retired founder of the National Association of Scholars], my predecessor.


DT: What was the reason for conducting the study?

PW: Texas has this law that requires students to take a full year of or one semester of American history and one semester of Texas history as an option. That’s a significant body of data. Texas passed this other law that [mandated] the syllabi of courses and curriculum vitae of faculty members [must be available within three clicks of the institution’s homepage]. What did we expect to find? We had no idea. Race, class and gender emerged from the data when we started collecting syllabi and seeing the patterns emerge. That’s the one that jumped out at us. My goodness, there are a lot of courses here on race, class and gender.


DT: [In the study] there’s the idea there’s a connection between the gap in college students’ learning and the [intense focus of the history classes on gender, race and class]. What proof do you have of that connection?

PW: I think that’s a matter less of proof than of interpretation.


DT:  Do you think that could be true about some of the other conclusions the study draws?

PW: I feel endangered you’re distorting some of this. I’m a social scientist, which means I make some kind of claim to being a scientist, but social scientists are by their nature interpretative enterprisers. In order to reach conclusions, you have to reach plausible interpretations, but just because it’s an interpretation doesn’t mean it’s out of the blue or just someone’s opinion; it has to be deeply and closely grounded in connection to the facts. I understand my answer here is more long-winded than you would like, but you’re asking me a question of whether our observations about the history courses at these two universities are plausibly connected to the national problem of graduates not knowing very much. The answer has to lie in the realm of interpretation. We cannot not generalize from the specifics of course offerings and syllabi at universities to the whole world of some 19 million college students. There’s a certain lottery that is required when you make these things; it doesn’t mean that the conclusions are flimsy or up in the air.


DT: How do you come to the conclusion that learning about race, class and gender excludes learning about other themes based on the course readings?

PW: Let’s start with a simple administrative rule for colleges and universities. A class has only so many hours: hours people spend in the classroom, the amount of time teachers are in contact with students, the amount of work a student is going to do. It’s finite. If you teach more of x you’re going to teach less of y.


DT: Why didn’t you visit classes or contact professors?

PW: We were deliberately trying to do a study that was objective and that did not depend on making up lists of opinions. If we had gone around and visited classes, which classes would we have visited? How long would we have stayed? ... Visiting classes was practically impossible. We also made sure everything we looked at was based on public sources. ... Also, would we have been welcome?


DT: Would it have made sense to send survey questions — the same questions — to all the professors being scrutinized?

PW: To what end? We wanted to know what the faculty members had actually taught, not what they said about what had been taught.


DT: But how can you know what they said about those books?

PW: We cannot know what they said about those books. It’s perfectly true we acknowledge that we don’t know, we’re not omniscient. What we do as social scientists is create a research design and work within that research design. What’s beyond the research is beyond it, and if someone else wants to ask the faculty members involved, “How do you feel about what you taught?”, what’s that going to show?  I don’t believe its going to show much of anything important.


DT: At what point, if you have a limited amount of data available to you,  do you decide this experiment cannot be thorough because the sources of data that would provide a complete picture are predominately off-limits and if we tried to pursue them, they would not be objective?

PW: The issue here is creating a research project in which the data that’s available is used to address specific questions that pertain to that data. We did not set out to report on what students learn in history courses at these two universities ... If you’re taking a course on particle physics you’re probably not going to learn much about AM music. The subjects of the course material covered tells you something about what students are going to learn. Now, if you take a course on American history that focuses on race, class and gender, all the readings focus on race, class and gender, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to come away with an enriched understanding of American diplomacy, American economy, American religion. You’ll get little bits of pieces but you won’t get the whole picture. Is that an assumption? Yes. Is it a wild and crazy assumption? No, it’s not. It’s based on common sense and observation. All the people working on this report were college professors. We know what we do. And we know how colleges work.