We All Politicize History

By Robert Jensen

Here’s an interesting question for historians: Why do ideologues never seem to be aware of their own ideology?

Such is the case with the recent report from the Texas Association of Scholars and the National Association of Scholars’ Center for the Study of the Curriculum, “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?

The groups’ answer to the title’s question is “yes,” which is hardly surprising given the NAS’ longstanding critique of scholars who raise questions about the mythology of American greatness.

Based on an examination of the assigned readings for all 85 sections of lower-division American history courses at the University of Texas at Austin (where I’ve been a professor in the School of Journalism for 20 years) and Texas A&M, the report concludes that:

all too often the course readings gave strong emphasis to race, class, or gender (RCG) social history, an emphasis so strong that it diminished the attention given to other subjects in American history (such as military, diplomatic, religious, intellectual history). The result is that these institutions frequently offered students a less-than-comprehensive picture of U.S. history.

I share the NAS’ concern that research and teaching have become so specialized that insufficient attention is paid to the big picture. But the key question is, what kind of big picture should be painted? Here I part company with the conservative politics of the group—the mythology of American greatness is, in fact, mythology, and good research and teaching should challenge myths. As is the case with all imperial powers, the United States’ record includes not only examples of greatness but also some of the most barbaric crimes in recorded human history.

Scholars can, and should, argue those points, based on “reasoned scholarship and civil debate,” as the NAS advises. But such debate should begin with the recognition of the obvious: in attempts to understand humans and human societies, everyone has a politics and everyone’s politics matter.

That’s why the final recommendation of the “Recasting History” report—that we “depoliticize history”—is so troubling. Do the report’s authors not recognize their own political position? Apparently they do not get the humor in ideologues decrying the ideology of others.

Political biases are, of course, present throughout any course in the humanities and social sciences, no matter whether a professor acknowledges them or not. From decisions about what topics to cover, to the list of readings, to the framing of lectures and discussions—teaching is always political, if by that one means that judgments about the nature of power in a society affect what, and how, one teaches. To recognize that all research and teaching have a politics is not to claim that the work of professors is nothing but politics, in the sense of proselytizing. Quality research and reasoned argument are important, but the value of our work is heightened, not diminished, when the political nature of that work is understood and acknowledged.

That’s as true of those who accept the status quo as those who challenge it. The issue is not whether teaching reflects political judgments, but whether one can defend those judgments on intellectual grounds. There may be no final consensus among faculty members on how a course should be structured or taught, but we faculty members can collectively sharpen our understanding and improve our practice by discussing these matters.

In that discussion, it is absurd for one side to claim it speaks from a neutral position, outside or above politics. In its final “depoliticize history” recommendation, the NAS report argues:

The root of the problem is that colleges and universities have drifted from their main mission. They and particular programs within them, increasingly think of themselves as responsible for reforming American society and curing it of prejudice and bigotry. When universities and university programs consider it necessary to atone for, and help erase, oppressions of the past; one way in which they do so is by depicting history as primarily a struggle of the downtrodden against rooted injustice. This pedagogical conception may be well-intended, but it is also a limited and partisan one, and history teaching should not allow itself to become imprisoned within a narrow interpretation. A depoliticized history would provide a comprehensive interpretation of American history that does not shortchange students by denying them exposure to intellectual, political, religious, diplomatic, military, and economic historical themes.

And what of the politics of this “depoliticized history”? Apparently, the political goal of the NAS to escape the prison of the narrow interpretation is not political. Or maybe it’s a political judgment in the service of transcending politics. Or maybe it just doesn’t make any sense to take a partisan position and claim that one isn’t partisan.

The report continues:

The dominance of race, class, and gender themes in history curricula came about through disciplinary mission creep. Historians and professors of United States history should return to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.

It would be interesting to find how the report’s authors came to understand the “disciplinary mission” of history (maybe it was revealed to them in a vision), but—sorry to have to repeat myself—any description of the mission of history has an underlying politics.

I don’t know if NAS scholars actually believe there is an “American story” that can be told from a neutral point of view, or whether this is merely a cynical debating tactic. But if we are going to address the very real problems facing the contemporary university, attempts at imposing ideology by claiming to be beyond ideology aren’t likely to help clarify problems or help generate solutions.


Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (City Lights, coming in 2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream(Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist.  An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/freelance/abeosheroffinterview.htm.

Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.

11 thoughts on “We All Politicize History

  1. Pingback: Eye on Williamson » Texas tidbits

  2. This is certainly an interesting post – about a rather fascinating position and articulation offered by said NAS group. On the first hand, the report seems to ask a question that is not answered. It is a profound question to ask if American History is dominated by race, class and gender (RCG). An unflinching answer might be ‘yes’. In fact the trajectory of our country my be one in which distinctions of RCG are more articulated and more relevant than in any other time in human history. – though in subtler, more sophisticated, and probably more powerful ways. But that is a different discussion.

    More to the point of this blog, NAS seems to provide an analysis of RCG as a lens through which American history is viewed. And their conclusion, as I understand them through Bob’s description, is that this lens is limiting and ultimately distorting of the fuller picture. Yet the entire discussion is reminiscent of a belief structure that I have been playing with for some time now, namely the idea that there are two kinds of people in the world, those that believe in the innate goodness of human-beings, and those that believe we are each flawed. And as such, can we look at – integrate – live with – our shadow material, or are forever repressing it in fear of it overtaking us? The irony of the argument is, at least at the high school level, the problem is just the opposite – a whitewashed, inaccurate, incomplete and misleading perspective presented to many more people than the college elite. It is, indeed, a less-than-comprehensive view that is virtually laughed at by the rest of the world, and a core element of our collective ignorance of America’s destructive shadow projections around the world.

  3. Ideally, at the end of the course, the student should not feel that the faculty member attempted to impose their own views on the student. Students should be exposed to conflcting points of view or interpretations. Often there are excellent readers that provide students with various points of view on historical issues. If a faculty member uses Zinn, perhaps they should also use Paul Johnson or “Patriot’s History”–dual and dueling texts. The NAS study, in fact, praised instances in which dueling texts were used or where readers were used.
    There were differences between University of Texas and Texas A&M–with a much broader and comprehensive picture offered at A&M than UT. So it can be done.
    Richard Fonte, researcher for NAS study..

    • Presenting “dueling texts” does not solve the “problem” of faculty imposing their views on students. If anything, it fosters an attitude that there is no truth, only opinion. This helps no one.

      From an NAS-type study, I would be hard-pressed to substantiate a claim that any school offers a “broader and comprehensive picture” than does another. Syllabi, after all, aren’t courses, but are descriptions used for bureaucratic purposes and as a starting point. Very little that a student learns is encapsulated by the syllabus, Learning, in my classes, starts with the students and where they are intellectually. As each class is different, both start and finish are different.

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  5. Agreed that broad anthologies with differing viewpoints is to be preferred, but at least we should give some credit to the faculty at both UT & A&M who attempted to address the issue that the commentary raised in the original blog post about politicized history discussed

  6. Prof. Jensen has it right. So often when less than noble aspects of US history are mentioned, quite often in regards to minorities, indigenous people, or aspects of US exceptionalism internationally, the response from some people is not so much denial of the facts (should they be aware of them), but instead it somehow diminishes the US by examining this past, warts and all, so to speak, and therefore is considered ‘bad form’ to even go there.

    We have to get beyond history being written exclusively by the ‘victors.’

    For the record, I am very much enjoying Oliver Stone’s “Untold History of the United States” on Showtime.

    “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so” ~ Will Rogers

  7. The NAS study endorses the study of American History, Warts and all. We do not believe it is bad form to “go there.” However, to only focus on the “warts” would be a incomplete history, so therefore, we seek inclusiveness and comprehensiveness in the topics covered and reading assigned in American History course. Social History of all forms, yes, but also Intellectual and philosophical history, business, economic, scientific and technological. All included!

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