Analysis of the NAS Report on “Recasting History”

By Allan J. Lichtman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University

This analysis examines the report of the National Association of Scholars: RECASTING HISTORY: ARE RACE, CLASS, AND GENDER DOMINATING AMERICAN HISTORY? (January 2013). The report studies courses as the University of Texas, Austin and Texas A & M University. It concludes that introductory history classes at these two universities, especially Texas, Austin have an “inordinate emphasis” on race, class and gender. Unfortunately, rather than an impartial, scientific study, the report is ideology masquerading as scholarship. The report and its accompanying recommendations violate the NAS’s own values of scholarly excellence, openness, impartiality, and academic freedom.

The centerpiece of the report is a classification of books assigned in various history classes at two universities, and secondarily the research interests of faculty members. she University of Texas, Austin and Texas A and M. Yet the report fails to identify by name the persons conducting these classifications. It fails to identify their specific qualifications for the task, or the criteria they used for classification.

It does mention that its lead reviewer is from the American Textbook Council, who the NAS later identified as the Council’s director, Gilbert Sewall. Yet Sewall is hardly an impartial reviewer. Like the NAS, he has long criticized the alleged “liberal bias” and “multiculturalism” of history books. In 2003 testimony before a US Senate Committee, Sewall assailed “the textbook activists” who use gender, religious, environmental, and nutritional causes that want textbooks to advance their agendas. … New heroes in leading textbooks … are designed to advance a political agenda that heightens and ennobles people of color, peace activists, anti-colonialists, environmentalists, and wronged women.” With such a reviewer the report’s findings are a foregone conclusion. The NAS also identified Richard Fonte as another reviewer. Yet he has no qualifications in history. His degree is in education and he has published no works in history.

Other key analytic issues raise serious questions. You cannot gain a true picture of education at an institution by studying courses from a single semester in 2010. You cannot understand what goes on in the classroom by looking at assigned books alone, without doing any classroom visits or interviewing any faculty members or students, or examining supplementary materials. The report, for example, assails professors for not assigned what the NAS regards as important documents in U. S. history. Yet professors often hand out such documents in class, even if they are not included in assigned readings. I commonly provide such handouts in my own history courses. The report also lacks any assessments of the skills and knowledge students actually have acquired in class.

The report also fails to indicate its sources of funding with the exception of the American Heritage Education Foundation. Like the NAS and the American Textbook Council this is a group grinding an ideological ax against the teaching of multiculturalism. In testifying against an alleged undue emphasis on diversity in history before the Texas State Board of Education, Jack Kamrath asserted, “we’re the United States of America, not the Diverse States of America.” The National Association of Scholars itself has had the financial backing of sources with a partisan conservative agenda. NAS funders have included the Olin, Bradley, Coors, Smith Richardson and Scaife Foundations.

As the author of White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement, I know that these organizations do not promote impartial scholarship or academic freedom. They target their funding to groups that advance their conservative agenda such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Committee for a Free Congress, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the NAS.

The NAS report is also filled with judgmental language that is inappropriate in an impartial scholarly study and discloses its ideological preconceptions. The report decries cites the “inordinate emphasis” on race, gender, and class at the institutions studied, indicating that the authors have privileged advance knowledge of what the proper level of emphasis ought to be. The report states that history professors “should counter mission creep by returning to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole.” Again, the report’s authors claim to have special knowledge of the mission of education and what comprises the “whole” of the American story. The reports disparages an emphasis on race, class, and gender as “ideologically partisan” implying that the authors’ have a purely objection understanding view of history and those with a different perspective are driven by partisan or ideological motives. Of course, there is not a shred of evidence in the report about the motives of scholars as the institutions studied. The report blithely makes these many pronouncements even though the NAS represents well under one percent of American academics.

The ways in which books are categorized, assures that the process ratifies the NAS’s long-standing opposition to alleged race, gender, and class emphases in higher education. I do not have the time to go through the entire classification in the report, but three examples highlight the fatal flaws in the reports’ classifications.

Begin with A New England Town: The First Hundred Years, Dedham Massachusetts, 1636 to 1736 by Kevin Lockridge. The report lists it among works that focus on class and counts it in the tally of books that allegedly create an inordinate emphasis on race, gender, and class in teaching. Yet this classic work goes well beyond class to strive for precisely the kind of comprehensive history that the NAS espouses. It presents a big picture of colonial life that encompasses religion, family life, migration patterns, political structure and practices, and political philosophy. The review in the Journal of American History, the leading journal in the field, lauds the book for its broad focus on matters such as “the profiles of local political leaders,” “church membership and the Halfway Covenant,” and “geographic mobility.” Lockridge also relates his findings on Dedham to the larger political history of the colonial and revolutionary era and the coming of the American Revolution.

Another example is Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian Democracy by Harry L. Watson, also listed for its focus on class. This is another now classic work that comprehensively analyzes major themes related to politics and society in Jacksonian America. The respected historian Jonathan Sarna said in Library Journal: “He shows how social, cultural, and economic factors interacted with politics, and stresses as a major theme the tension between liberty and power that both characterized the period and forms part of its historical legacy. His explanations of republican theory and the fight over the Bank of the United States are particularly clear … Recent scholarship has dated well-known previous surveys of Jacksonian America. For now, this should be the volume of choice.”

A third example is Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776 by Jon Butler, which the study tags for its focus on race and class. Yet this is a broad study of American colonial life in the eighteenth century. It shows how ideologically, politically, socially, and economically British colonies were becoming distinctly American and how these changes prefigured the American Revolution. Historian Jill Lepore, then of Boston University, now Harvard University, said, “The scope of the book is really quite broad; it covers nearly a century of development across thirteen widely varying colonies, and considers six formidably large aspects of early American life: migration and settlement, politics, economics, religion, the material world, and the origins of the Revolution. Butler’s book revolves around, and advances, a coherent, critical thesis: that ‘the vast social, economic, political, and cultural changes’ of this period ‘created a distinctively ‘American’ society.’ “
By the standards used to classify these works, most of the scholarship in American history during the past forty years could be classified as part as part of inordinate emphasis on race, class, and gender.

Throughout, the report falsely assumes that history writing is a zero sum game in which attention to class, race, and gender somehow crowds out more traditional concerns. These are in fact big themes of history that deepen and enrich historical studies. I have been practicing political history for 45 years, writing about the American presidency, U. S. elections, and the rise of the modern conservative movement. My work has not been diminished but greatly enriched by weaving in themes related to race, class, and gender. For example, it is impossible to properly study modern American conservatism without analyzing the race, class and gender of conservative leaders and rank and file activists, and without examining the implications of conservative policies on race and gender relations in American, the relationship between capital and labor, and the distribution of wealth and income. None of this means that my work neglects the political ideas behind the conservative movement, the biographies of its major figures, or its institutional base.

The report’s own findings disprove its assumption about the conflict between studying race, class, and gender, and so-called traditional topics. Table 1 is the report’s accounting of all reading assignments from courses studied at the University of Texas, Austin and Texas A and M. The percentages add to over 100% because assignments overlap into more than one area. The table shows that so-called traditional disciplines are hardly underrepresented. Political history is a close second at 31 percent. Philosophical and intellectual history is third at 21 percent and diplomatic and international history is fourth at 13 percent. Table 2 summarizes the categories of Table 1. Taking into account the overlaps, traditional disciplines are represented in 99 percent of assignments and assignments with race, class, and gender emphases in 59 percent. The ratio of traditional topics to race, class, and gender emphases is 1.7 to 1.

It does not help to make the report’s case to overlook this cumulative data and focus instead on individual courses, because assignments fall into many topic areas as illustrated by the three books considered above. If we assumed hypothetically that a class assigned only these three works by Lockridge, Watson, and Butler, the NAS study would count it as a course having an “inordinate” 100 percent emphasis on race, class, and gender. This is an absurd result given the many other “traditional” topics that these books address.

Table 3 replicates the above analysis for the report’s classification of the research interests of the faculty included in the NAS study, from p. 30. The percentages again add to more than 100 percent, given overlapping interests. Traditional disciplines are not underrepresented. Social and cultural history without a race, class or gender emphasis is second at 41 percent. Political history is fifth at 28 percent and economic and business history is sixth at 26 percent. Table 4 summarizes the results from Table 3. It shows that traditional disciplines are represented in 164 percent of faculty interests meaning that all or nearly all faculty overlap into more than one traditional field of interest. Interests with race, class, and gender emphasis are less heavily represented at 131 percent of faculty interests. The ratio of traditional interests to race, class, and gender emphases is 1.3 to 1.

Thus the report’s actual findings on teaching and research contradict its conclusions about an overemphasis on race, class, and gender that supposedly sacrifices attention to so-called traditional concerns of historians.

I would like to conclude with some broad issues. Throughout the Texas report and other material produced by the NAS flows the assumption that there exists a standard canon of disciplines, books, and documents. This assumption is made explicit in the report’s recommendation 5, which proposes that “History department members should collaborate to develop lists of historical documents and works of scholarship that the department expects all students at a given course level to study.” To the extent there is or ever was such an agreed upon canon it is constantly changing with new directions in scholarship.

Through most of the nineteenth century in America’s leading colleges and universities the canon such as it existed, was predominantly theological, with Christianity privileged as the one true religion. Today, William Graham Sumner is justly an icon of American conservatism for his work on individualism. Yet in 1879, the president of Yale University, Noah Porter assailed Sumner for teaching a course in the new discipline of sociology that subjected Christians to the same impartial scientific as everyone else. By the early twentieth century the alleged canon had radically shifted to include new secular works in the burgeoning fields of social science. In the late twentieth century the so-called canon shifted again as scholars advanced new methods, emphases, and discoveries. I would suggest that the NAS today is the modern version of Noah Porter and the scholars they assail the modern versions of William Graham Sumner.

For decades the NAS has assailed affirmative action programs designed to diversity America’s student body. Yet now they are advancing affirmative action to diversify America’s faculty. If as the report’s section on “National Parallels” claims, today’s professors are interested in issues related to race, class and gender and a generally liberal approach to history, this is because hiring has following the merit first model that the NAS champions. The traditional scholars of an earlier time did not hire new faculty to replicate themselves. Rather they hired the best and most productive scholars in the field, which produced today’s professoriate.

Recommendations of the NAS report would subvert this merit system and the academic freedom that the NAS espouses. Recommendation 3 of the report is quite explicit: “Hiring committees should also consider the makeup of the research interests in the department, and if race, class, and gender have become too dominant as research themes, they should decline to hire new faculty members whose research focuses on race, class, and gender.” Also subversive of academic freedom is Recommendation 5, which calls upon members of history departments to collaborate to develop lists of historical documents and works of scholarship that the department expects all students at a given course level to study. If implemented this recommendation would undermine the academic freedom of all faculty members who dissented from the prescribed list.

No less dangerous is recommendation 2. To have deans, provosts, and trustees who are not qualified in the discipline of history significantly intervene in decisions about hiring, promotion, scholarship, and teaching would gravely damage academic excellence and academic freedom. The recommendation does not even state that historians should conduct such reviews.

Perhaps greater damage would be wrought only by the report’s recommendation number 8 which calls for political intervention into university scholarship and teaching. Politicians have their own goals and agenda that have nothing whatsoever to do with academic excellence and are detrimental to academic freedom.

In sum, this is a report that does violence to standards of openness, transparency, and sound and impartial scholarship. It includes recommendations that if adopted would threaten academic excellence, merit, and academic freedom at colleges and universities in Texas and across the United States.

 

Table 1: Reading Assignments by Topic Emphasis, p. 16 NAS Report
Social History with Racial and Ethnic Emphasis:  36%
Political History:  31%
Philosophical and Intellectual History:  21%
Diplomatic and International Relations History:  13%
Social History with Gender Emphasis:  12%
Social History with Social Class Emphasis:  11%
Economic and Business History:  10%
Social and Cultural History – Other:  8%
Military History:  7%
Religious History:  7%
Scientific, Environmental, and Technological History:  2%

Table 2: Summary of Reading Assignments by Topic Emphasis, p. 16 NAS Report
Traditional Disciplines:*          99%
Race, Class, and Gender Emphasis:** 59%
* Political History, Philosophical & Intellectual History, Diplomatic & International History, Economic & Business History, Social & Cultural History – Other, Military History, Religious History, Scientific, Environmental & Technological History

** Social History With Racial & Ethnic Emphasis, Social History With Gender Emphasis,
Social History With Social Class Emphasis

Table 3: Faculty Research Interests by Topic Emphasis, p. 30 NAS Report
Social History with Racial or Ethnic Emphasis 63%
Social and Cultural History – Other 41%
Social History with Gender Emphasis 35%
Social History with Social Class Relationships 33%
Political History 28%
Economic and Business History 26%
Diplomatic and International History 22%
Scientific, Environmental, and Technological History 17%
Military History 15%
Religious History 15%
Philosophical and Intellectual History 0%
Table 4
Summary of Faculty Research Interests by Topic Emphasis, p. 30 NAS Report
Traditional Disciplines:*          164%
Race, Class, and Gender Emphasis:** 131%

* Political History, Philosophical & Intellectual History, Diplomatic & International History, Economic & Business History, Social & Cultural History – Other, Military History, Religious History, Scientific, Environmental & Technological History

** Social History With Racial & Ethnic Emphasis, Social History With Gender Emphasis,
Social History With Social Class Emphasis

2 responses

  1. Pingback: A Response to Peter Wood | Academe Blog

  2. I just finished writing a paper where I was looking at the NAS Report, “A Crisis of Competence.” Several of the comments in your article are very similar to my conclusions. I agree that the report that I just read is not a scholarship study. I believe that they are mixing their “what they do” categories. Their “reports” look a lot more like “commentary” and “advocacy.”

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