Why “Comprehensive” History is Controversial

Ashley Thorne

Before the Texas state senate and house are a pair of matching bills which propose an amendment to a 1955 law requiring students at public universities to complete six credits of American history courses as part of their general education. The one-and-a-half-page Senate bill, SB 1128, adds the words “from courses providing a comprehensive survey of” before “American history.” Its basic purpose is to ensure that students completing their general education requirements receive a broad and complete overview of American history. At the University of Texas, students have been able to meet their requirements by taking more narrow, topic-based courses, such as “The Black Power Movement” and “Mexican American Women, 1910-Present.”

These bills, sponsored by Sen. Dan Patrick and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, have been proposed as a response to a report by the National Association of Scholars and our Texas affiliate, called Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History? Our study found that indeed, these three emphases have been dominating the study of U.S. history at Texas A&M University and especially at the University of Texas. While a comprehensive survey course might reasonably cover a wide range of categories—including diplomatic, economic, military, intellectual, political, religious, scientific, environmental, technological, and social history, as well as history emphasizing race, class, and gender—at the state’s largest universities the latter three were emphasized disproportionately in readings assigned in courses fulfilling the state requirement. This trend has been perpetuated by a cycle of faculty specializations in these topics.

An amendment specifying that courses fulfilling the American history requirement provide a “comprehensive survey” is an appropriate step to ensure that students—most of whom take no other history courses and major in other areas—don’t miss a college-level education in their own history.

This clause, however, is under attack by a Latino group called Librotraficante, which was created in response to the passage of another bill in Arizona related to curricula in public schools. The head of Librotraficante, Tony Diaz, told a Houston Press blog called Hair Balls, “I encourage people to look up the crazy report [referring to NAS’s Recasting History report]” He continued, "What people don't know is about NAS is that they're the intellectual Ku Klux Klan. They're famous for going after multicultural programs and gender studies.”

Mr. Diaz is also quoted in NBC Latino, the San Antonio Express-News, and the Texas Tribune denouncing the Senate bill, and a press release from Librotraficante calls it an “attempt to destroy Mexican American and African American Studies in Texas.”

The kinds of courses that Librotraficante is concerned about will most likely, if the bill is passed, still continue to be offered at Texas public universities as electives. The only change would be that they would not count toward the state U.S. history requirement in general education.

Tom Lindsay, higher education director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which hosted the launch of Recasting History at a policy conference in Austin, responded to attacks on the bill: “This is not about race, this is about competency. Have we reached the point where requiring a comprehensive survey in an introductory course is now subject to the charge of racism?”

Peter Wood, NAS president, said, “I do support the bills that have been introduced in the House and the Senate. They are small clarifications of the original legislation and it’s quite clear that what was intended was comprehensive, but the universities were substituting other kinds of courses.”

NAS’s report provided ten recommendations for colleges and universities as steps toward providing students with full and sound knowledge of U.S. history. The first of these were internal: we recommended that history departments evaluate themselves in terms of the overall curriculum, teaching personnel, the broadness of the courses, the books selected for study, and the approval of new courses. Farther down, we recommended “better review and oversight” in order to “ensure that colleges’ teaching lines up with legal provisions.” We also encouraged other states to follow Texas’s example in requiring undergraduates to take American history courses.

We endorse this Texas Senate bill and the corresponding one in the House, but ultimately the choice is in the hands of the Texans who will vote on the issue. We aren’t “going after multicultural programs and gender studies,” as Mr. Diaz accused. Rather, we documented in painstaking detail what is actually being taught and the books assigned for each course. And as we have consistently made clear, we believe that race, class, and gender are important components of American history, which would have gaping holes without them. At the same time, there is more to the study of U.S. history than race, class, and gender, and a “comprehensive survey” would ensure that college students are exposed to the broad spectrum of issues in American history.

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