University of Texas at Austin Statement on National Association of Scholars Report

Jan. 10, 2013

AUSTIN, Texas — 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.

For more information, contact:  David Ochsner, College of Liberal Arts, 512-626-0788.

3 Comments to "University of Texas at Austin Statement on National Association of Scholars Report"

1.  Mervin Malone, Jr. said on Jan. 10, 2013

I'm glad that the University of Texas at Austin takes this EDUCATION, but there is still much work to do in employment as well. UT-Austin has long had a problem retaining African-American students, and that's in large part due to the lack of black faces in faculty and staff.....and I don't just mean doing garbage collection!

2.  Richard Fonte said on Jan. 13, 2013

The university response to the National Association of Scholars report misses the fundamental focus of the study-How is the University of Texas implementing the 1971 law requiring graduates to complete two semester of American History to graduate.
The focus is on the thousands of students fulfilling this requirement to acquire a higher level of understanding of America’s past rather than on the hundreds who may be seeking a history degree. At the University of Texas the focus was on those taking the introductory survey American History courses (His 315K & His 315L) and the “Special topic” courses (314K, 315G and 317L).
In fact, The Department and the University are to be commended for its efforts to establish opportunities for history majors to study diplomacy or World War II sites. And yes, there is a wealth of primary documents at the LBJ library, Harry Ranson Center and Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.
Yet, for the vast majority of undergraduates who are not history majors the one and only association with American History occurs in the required courses that fulfill the 1971 law. It is in these required courses that the NAS study found significant and problematic differences between the University of Texas and Texas A&M. In particular, at UT, students had less reading assignments that concentrated on diplomatic and military history than those at A&M and had more limited assignment of important primary sources documents. This difference existed even though the study allowed reading assignments to be classified in more than one categorical theme.
Moreover, the use of “special topic courses” that covered only social history themes and excluded significant exposure to other themes further diminished the scope of what these non-major undergraduates covered in their assignments. This commitment to focus on narrow special topics courses has been a continuing approach used by the University unlike Texas A&M. While we examined the fall of 2010 in the study, a follow-up review of the class schedule for every following semester found special topic courses focusing exclusively on social history themes rather than military, diplomatic or intellectual history. However, we would not find that a satisfactory solution—the addition of special topic classes in military history, for example. In fact, the report was critical of the use of a naval history special topic course at Texas A&M.
We believe that the 1971 law intended for non-history majors to have the opportunity to survey American History covering a full-range of themes beyond social history. The NAS study believes that social History focused on race, gender and class has a very appropriate role in the study of American History. It is simply not possible to study American History properly without covering these themes. We also recognize that such themes can be intertwined with other themes. For example, as your statement acknowledges we believe that Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas are important texts and we classified these texts as having a racial theme, but also as intellectual history. However, we would not expect that these themes would consume 78% of all the reading assignments at the University of Texas. In stark contrast, about one-half of reading assignments reflected these themes at A&M.
When some social history themes are emphasized over other equally important themes, we believe students are being short-changed and not receiving a comprehensive overview of American History. We do believe that this can and should be addressed. For example, we found that those faculty members that used anthologies with multiple readings provided students far more opportunity to read key political and intellectual history documents than those who did not use such an approach.
Rather than simply reject the findings of the NAS report, we urge the university to address the identified problem and increase opportunities for the non-history major to receive a broad and comprehensive picture of American History, warts and all.
Richard Fonte, Researcher
National Association of Scholars

3.  Richard Pells said on Jan. 31, 2013

The University of Texas history department once had three professors specializing in American cultural history: Robert Crunden (who unfortunately died in 1999), the Pulitzer Prize-winning William Goetzmann (who retired a few years ago), and me (I retired in 2011). None of us has been replaced, nor do I expect that we will be replaced any time soon, if ever. In addition, the department had a historian of American religion, Howard Miller, who won many teaching awards but also retired in 2011. He has not been replaced either, despite the fact that the American religion is hardly an insignificant topic in American history.

Moreover, because of departures, administrative appointments, and retirements, the number of American history courses, of any kind, has seriously declined. Given the fact that students have to take a year of American history (though not necessarily the survey courses), the paucity of American history courses is a serious problem for undergraduates.

Most of all, if members of the department and the administration simply rail against the NAS report instead of seriously debating whether they should undertake new sorts of hiring to add more real intellectual diversity to the history faculty, they could well encounter an intervention of really conservative politicians in the State Legislature. This is an intervention no one at UT wants. So I would recommend a genuine debate about these issues, rather than continued denials that any problem exists.