The National Association of Scholars report “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?” raises some important questions, but it also paints a narrowly defined and largely inaccurate picture of the quality, depth and breadth of history teaching and research at The University of Texas at Austin, and it mischaracterizes how race, class and gender inform teaching and research in history.
A Broad Look at History
The report suggests that UT Austin diminishes the attention given to subjects such as military, diplomatic, religious and intellectual history. In fact, The University of Texas at Austin is a recognized national leader in these areas, so much so that alumnus, Pulitzer Prize winner and Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis has called UT Austin “the place to be” for the study of the history of diplomacy.
Moreover, diplomacy is the research theme for 2012-13 in the History Department’s Institute for Historical Studies. For the academic year, the department recruited three postdoctoral fellows who study the history of diplomacy, and the department hosts weekly seminars in addition to regular courses on diplomacy.
Some of our foremost historians H.W. Brands, Jeremi Suri, Mark Lawrence and Pulitzer Prize winner David Oshinsky are world leaders in their disciplines who publish noted books on military, diplomatic, religious and political history. Our top historians in these areas regularly teach the basic survey courses to our undergraduates.
The History Department’s Frank Denius Normandy Scholar Program brings together students for intensive study of military and political issues, including the opportunity to visit World War II sites in Europe.
Outside the History Department, the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas, and the new Clements Center on History, Strategy and Statecraft offer undergraduate and graduate students a wealth of options in the study of military, diplomatic, religious and intellectual history. And students have access to a wealth of primary documents at the LBJ Library, Harry Ransom Center and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.
The Value of Studying Race, Class and Gender
It is important to note that race, class and gender received little attention from scholars until the 1960s. Rather than “diminish attention to other areas” as the NAS report suggests, these areas of study have broadened the view on historical events and personalities.
The report attempts to isolate race, class and gender as something distinct and separate from other areas of study, when in fact they are intrinsic to these other areas.
We use different lenses to look at history the notion that you can’t look at things through these lenses is a profound misreading of what history does. Teaching race, class and gender topics is not ideological, but rather true to the craft of history. It helps broaden our understanding of American society by adding new voices and perspectives to the rich American story. It can make the study of history relevant to students’ lives, encourage lifelong learning and promote critical thinking.
An Overly Narrow Report
It is unfortunate that the NAS report looks at only one semester in 2010 and didn’t approach UT Austin for additional information. Since that time the university has added more students and course offerings in military, diplomatic, religious and intellectual history.
The NAS report also excludes many upper-level courses, which are widely available to undergraduates, and it fails to look at many supporting historical documents that are regularly read by classes.
The report’s attempt to characterize and thereby criticize readings as overly focused on race, class and gender is, at times, curious. While it acknowledges “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” as “indisputably important texts” that should be read more widely, it then characterizes those same books as coming from the perspective of race and uses that to criticize UT Austin.
For more on this issue, see Professor Suri’s blog post “What Kind of History Should We Teach?” at the Texas Exes’ Alcalde website.