The Future of American History
What does it mean to teach about race in American history? Does considering race, along with class and gender, fragment our history by subordinating the greater positive story of freedom and progress to a politically driven leftist narrative of pain and suffering?
Many political conservatives lament the increasing tendency of American historians to include race, class, and gender in research and teaching of our history. Critics of the new Advanced Placement US history curriculum, like the Jefferson County, Colorado, school board, want to “present positive aspects of the US.” The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has made a name for itself as an insistent critic of multiculturalism. The NAS report on the history curriculum at two Texas universities is subtitled with their greatest fear: “Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?”1 Led by Gilbert Sewall of the American Textbook Council, the authors of the report analyze books assigned in history courses. Sewall complained in 2003 to a Senate committee: “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.” The report states that history professors “should counter mission creep by returning to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole.” This complaint about the importance of race, class, and gender in historical study is based on conservatives’ assertion that these methods represent “ideologically partisan approaches.”2
The History and Political Science Department at Illinois College searched for an American historian last year. We narrowed our focus by stating, to quote from our ad in Perspectives on History, our “preference for candidates who specialize in African American history and/or borderlands history,” precisely what the NAS criticizes. I asked my colleagues to reflect on that decision.
Revealed: Truths & Myths #4 and #3 by Chicago-based artist Joyce Owens. Both paintings are in the Paul R. Jones Collection of American Art at the University of Alabama. Images courtesy of the Paul R. Jones Collection of American Art at the University of Alabama and reproduced with the permission of the artist. See “On the Cover” for more information about this series of paintings.
Bob Kunath, a modern German historian, expressed a common idea at Illinois College: “I think it fits with the identity of the institution, which was born amidst the struggle over slavery.” Our first president, Edward Beecher, was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and a good friend of Reverend Elijah P. Lovejoy, the abolitionist newspaper editor in Alton, Illinois, who was killed by a mob in 1837. The National Park Service recognizes two Underground Railroad sites on our campus, a unique distinction in American higher education.
Recently the number of African Americans and other students of color have increased on our campus, without a corresponding growth in faculty of color. Jenny Barker-Devine, a modern Americanist, wrote: “I am deeply troubled by data that suggest that women and minorities still lose interest in history at an early age because it simply doesn’t speak to them.” She believes it is a “moral imperative” for us to offer history through the lens of race, and she has found that our students “overwhelmingly thought African American history would be a useful addition to the department.” A historical search of our departmental curriculum confirmed that Illinois College had never offered a course in African American history.
Our department’s decision to seek an African American historian was driven not by ideology, but by very traditional considerations: the historical identity of our institution, our current students’ interests, and gaps in our coverage of significant American themes. We had not been telling the whole American story.
We advertised a two-year replacement position and received over 130 applications, from scholars whose specialties spanned the American narrative from the colonial era to the present and who hailed from right to left coast and beyond US borders. My reading of this collective self-portrait of new American historians suggests that conservatives are wrong about the role of political ideology, but also why they are so alarmed. These young teachers want their students to think critically about a more inclusive history, a whole American story that does not leave out those whose experiences were not privileged, not free, and not previously considered noteworthy. I quote here from some applications (with their explicit permission) as illustrations of the future of American history.
Joshua Haynes, a University of Georgia PhD now teaching at Miami University, begins his US survey with the question “In what sense is the history of the United States of America the story of freedom?” Haynes’s willingness to challenge the equation of “America” and “freedom” was inspired by his graduate school mentors, but also comes from his research on the 18th-century interactions of Creek Indians and whites in Georgia. Omar Dphrepaulezz contrasts popular ideologies of our historical “mission” with actual histories of the “oppression of large groups of Americans.” His University of Connecticut dissertation explains one result of the American mission: the occupation of the Philippines led to the 1906 massacre of hundreds of Filipino Moros by American soldiers. Vicki Rozema’s 2013 University of Tennessee dissertation showed that “whites coveted the lands” controlled by Cherokees. Cherokees defended their property before 1835 by “enacting laws governing industry and natural resources,” but whites, regarding the Cherokees as an obstacle to economic development, decided on removal, using national security as a camouflage for economic motives.
Heightening the attention paid to the lives of people of color, as well as poor whites, male and female, is precisely what most applicants explicitly advocated, in place of repeating the traditional history of white elites. David Goldberg, who is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, adapted his earlier teaching at West Virginia University to help his mostly first-generation students confront disparaging but common stereotypes about Appalachian people. Tina Cannon at Texas Christian University showed how Fort Worth offered “stubborn resistance” to the desegregation of public schools after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. That unwillingness to change racist practices sometimes led to violence. Christopher Hayes’s Rutgers dissertation describes the postwar deterioration of African American life in New York City: by the 1960s African Americans “lived in more segregated neighborhoods, went to worse schools, and had poorer employment prospects.” Liberal mayoral administrations paid little attention to suburban housing discrimination and deteriorating segregated schools, eventually leading to the 1964 riots in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, which radically altered the trajectory of civil rights politics.
Reading these dozens of dossiers, I found much less overt ideology than is alleged by the NAS and is present in their own report. These new PhDs were not mining the archives to make political points, but eagerly looking for stories not yet told. Their archival researches led them to use race, as well as class and gender, to explain their understanding of the American story.
What the men of the NAS consider “the American story, as a whole,” appears to me to be moving backward toward the history of great men, and a few women, usually white, nearly always privileged, whose lives and ideals were distant from the grubbier experiences of most people in America, which was precisely the grand assumption of academic American history into the 1960s, when I was an undergraduate.3 Such a truncated narrative will only continue to teach our more diverse students that history doesn’t concern them.
1. The full report is on the NAS website, http://www.nas.org/articles/recasting_history_are_race_class_and_gender_dominating_american_history.
2. Allan Lichtman demonstrated on the Academe Blog how the NAS report’s methods led to predetermined conclusions, mainly the assumption that if a study mentions race, it is about race, and thus “ideologically partisan”: http://academeblog.org/2013/06/21/analysis-of-the-nas-report-on-recasting-history/. James Grossman and Elaine Carey, in a Perspectives on History article in February 2013, “Throwing Stones,” called the report uninformed, tendentious, and ideologically driven.
3. Unlike academic historians and the wider professorial world, the NAS is overwhelmingly male: of the 60 members of its Board of Directors and its former and current Board of Advisors, only 10 are women.
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Steve Hochstadt is a professor of history at Illinois College. Daleah Goodwin from the University of Georgia was hired for the position in American and African American history.
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