Sunday, March 10, 2013

Today, It's Just One Damn Thing After Another

A brouhaha broke out earlier this year over the Texas requirement that students at its public colleges and universities must take (and pass) two courses in U.S. history, with the option of substituting a course in Texas history for one of the U.S. history courses. A Dumbo/Teabagger think tank (oxymoron?) in Austin — the Texas Public Policy Foundation — started the ball rolling earlier this year with the launching of a study of the content of required college history courses in Texas. The Texas Public Policy Foundation was founded by Jeff Sandefer (an heir to a West Texas oil fortune) who had a falling out with the UT-Austin McComb's School of Business; Sandefer has made it his life's work to bring the UT-Austin administration to heel. This stuff about the content of U.S. history courses at UT-Austin and Texas A&M is actually a dish best served cold. If this is a (fair & balanced) tale full of sound and fury, so be it.

[x TM]
How Should History Be Taught At A&M And UT?
By Paul Burka

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In a story with the headline “Legislators Seek to Tweak College History Requirement,” Ralph K.M. Haurwitz writes in a recent issue of the Austin American-Statesman:

Some history courses offered at the University of Texas, Texas A&M University and other public institutions of higher learning in the state would no longer count toward core requirements for an undergraduate degree under proposed legislation. Measures filed Tuesday in the Senate and last month in the House would amend a 1955 state law to stipulate that only courses providing “a comprehensive survey” of American history or Texas history would count toward the required six history credits, typically two classes.

The bills, authored by state Representative Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and state Senator Dan Patrick, R-Houston, are in response to a report in January that claimed UT and A&M history courses put too much emphasis on race, class and gender and not enough on political, diplomatic and military matters. The report was especially critical of special-topic courses such as “American Sea Power” at A&M and “Black Power Movement” at UT.

Former State Representative Wayne Christian [R-Center] is gone, but his spirit lives on, thanks to Patrick and Capriglione. Readers will no doubt recall—how can they forget?—Christian’s effort to amend the House budget bill by mandating that a certain percentage of courses be devoted to the great works of Western civilization. He was trying to drive a wedge between conservatives and minority legislators, and listening to the debate was the closest I have come to torture.

I’m all for teaching the great works of Western civilization. What I’m not all for is legislators micromanaging flagship universities. Now Patrick and Capriglione seek to impose a similar mandate upon the UT and Texas A&M history departments. If their bill becomes law, only courses providing “a comprehensive survey” of American or Texas history would count toward the history credits required for graduation. In other words, elective courses don’t count. The bill states:

A college or university receiving state support or state aid from public funds may not grant a baccalaureate degree or a lesser degree or academic certificate to any college or university receiving state support or state aid from public fund unless the person has credit for six semester hours from courses providing a comprehensive survey of American [or Texas] history.

They are responding to a critical report by the National Association of Scholars, an academic organization that monitors trends in higher education, particularly those that involve politics and political correctness in the classroom. The NAS charged that UT and A&M history courses put too much emphasis on race, class, and gender.

I majored in history at Rice University in the sixties, early enough in that turbulent decade that few people had even heard of race, class, and gender in an academic context. The courses I took were the survey courses in American and world history, a course on Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, a graduate-level course in American political history, an elective on Lincoln, and a life-changing course in Modern European history from Bismarck to the Cold War, taught brilliantly by an eccentric professor, since deceased, who influences me to this day.

If I were in school today, I’m not sure that I would take classes on race, class, and gender. Not that I have anything against them, but I would be much more interested in, say, American legal history, or a history of the Cold War. Even so, I recognize that the importance of race, class, and gender in the modern world how they shape our times. These subjects, and the issues they raise, are something anyone who wants to understand contemporary history needs to know. (If you disagree, look at the results from the last election.)

This seems to be the season for micromanaging universities. Patrick and Capriglione have every right to bring forward the issues raised by the National Association of Scholars. But the line should be drawn at legislating what should, and should not, be taught at the state’s two flagship universities. Ω

[Paul Burka joined the staff of Texas Monthly in 1974, one year after the magazine's founding. He was born in Galveston, graduated from Rice University with a B.A. in history, and received a J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law.  Burka is a senior executive editor and a political columnist at TM.]

Copyright © 2013 Emmis Publishing /dba/ Texas Monthly

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