A Response from the NAS
By Richard Fonte
The answer to your question—what kind of history should we teach—according to the NAS study is, comprehensive and inclusive. The NAS believes that all American History courses should involve significant reading assignments covering the topics of slavery, American Indians, labor unions, women’s suffrage, prohibition, civil rights, immigration, 19th century & 20th century, poverty, and yes, even popular culture.
No, we do not think these topics are “un-American.” No, we do not demand a simple and one-sided history of just a few people—an elite view of history. But, we believe that Political History, intellectual history, military history, religious history and diplomatic history must also be reflected in the student reading assignments.
Frankly, we found that this approach to history is more characteristic of Texas A&M for these required undergraduate courses than at UT. Why?
Our review of every reading assignment at the University of Texas found that all too often this comprehensive coverage of all themes in American History was not in evidence through the reading assignments despite the fact that the study double and triple classified articles into as many categories as possible. Yes, we recognize that political history does not occur in a vacuum. A more appropriate mix of themes is clearly evidenced at A&M.
Somehow they have found a way to do this. Why not UT?
What the NAS believes was the intention of the 1971 law was that students would be provided a comprehensive survey of American History to fulfill their two course requirement in American History. Frankly, we do not find that the “special topics” courses at the University of Texas meet the comprehensive standard. While many of these topics are interesting in themselves, they are intentionally not comprehensive.
Rather than reject the NAS study out of hand, I would suggest the department follow one of the recommendations of the report and develop a concept of a “core competency” of historical knowledge that would be expected by students in these required courses—one that is both comprehensive and inclusive.
You ask what were the purposes of the study. They are stated in the opening sentences of the report—examine how the 1971 legislative requirement is being fulfilled. Our methodology was to use the tools now provided to any student or member of the public under the “three click rule” to access the syllabi and academic Vitae of sections and the faculty member teaching that course.
Yes, we focused on the reading assignments listed on those syllabi and classified the content of the reading assignment into 11 categories or themes of history. The overwhelming majority of reading assignments were classified into more than one category.
To complete this classification, in reality, what was needed was good reading comprehension and an ability to discern what themes of history are evident in the reading assignment.
We had no prior knowledge as to the content of these readings and frankly we were somewhat surprised by what we found. We were surprised that the reading assignment coverage was so different at the University of Texas versus Texas A&M. While not ideal, A&M does have broader coverage in its reading assignments.
We were also pleasantly surprised that those faculty even with strong Race, Class and Gender research interests who used broad readers or reader style textbooks had much broader coverage of historical themes than other faculty. Also, we thought intriguing those faculty that used dual and conflicting textbooks, such as Zinn and Paul Johnson.
The biggest disappointment is the partial abandonment of survey courses by the University of Texas to fulfill the 1971 law. We were not aware of this prior to the study and would urge the department to reconsider whether these courses should fulfill the 1971 requirement. We have no objections to the courses themselves, but they are intentionally not comprehensive as intended by the 1971 law.