Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Every semester I teach a large introductory course in American history. At the start, I ask the students how many of them are in the class because they have to be. Nearly all raise their hands. Two semesters of American history are required of undergraduates at public universities in the state of Texas. The great majority of my students are not history majors; they are taking the class to fulfill the requirement.
I ask the students if they know why the requirement exists. Because the state legislature said so, they gradually conclude, sometimes after help.
Why did the legislature say so?, I ask.
So we will be better voters, someone suggests.
I ask for elaboration.
Collectively the students conclude that it is a good idea to know about the institutions of American government and how they work. And maybe to know something of the background of issues they as voters might be expected to base their votes on.
I draw the unoriginal but useful analogy to driver’s training courses. The students all had to take such courses before they received their driver’s licenses. We don’t let you behind the wheel of a car until you’ve shown you know how to drive it, I say. As voters, you are going to take the wheel of the American republic. It makes sense you should demonstrate you know how to drive it.
So far, so good. But what, precisely, should the students be required to learn? Driving a car safely requires mastering a limited number of specific tasks, none of which is particularly controversial. American history, on the other hand, embraces libraries of information, much of which is very controversial.
The history wars have been raging for decades at the high school level. During most of that time, colleges and universities have been left to themselves to determine what constitutes an American history curriculum. But skirmishes are escalating on this post-secondary front.
The Texas legislature, like legislatures in other states, is revisiting its university mandate. The original point was to produce not simply informed voters, but loyal and patriotic citizens. Loyalty and patriotism were construed narrowly, as supporting the status quo. This is not surprising, as legislators typically epitomize the status quo. And many of the legislators take the not wholly unreasonable position that if they are underwriting the education, they should have some say in what is taught.
A first step in this direction was the requirement, implemented several years ago, that the syllabus for each course be made available to the public. Sharp-eyed staffers could thereby identify subversive texts and teachers and warn their bosses and the public.
The professors grumbled, but this nod toward transparency has occasioned few difficulties. It turns out that legislative staffers and their bosses have better things to do.
Recently the 1619 Project and critical race theory have prompted new demands to ensure that young minds are not filled with unsettling thoughts. The outcome of this particular battle has yet to be determined.
But the largest issue of all remains in the background. The really subversive part of any liberal education is not teaching students information or what to think; it is teaching students how to think. It requires students to learn to think for themselves, rejecting authority and insisting on evidence that is then subjected to skeptical scrutiny.
It perhaps goes without saying that this approach is as subversive of received opinions from the left as from the right. For this reason it has fewer defenders than it should. The left is not as different from the right as it professes to be. Many on the left are as eager to teach students what to think as those on the right. The right preaches patriotism, the left systemic racism; the right touts America’s democratizing mission in the world, the left America’s incurable imperialism.
My students want to know which side I am on. What party do I belong to?
I respond that from a professional standpoint, the only party I belong to is the contrarian party. My job is to challenge whatever notions and beliefs they bring to my class. To the conservatives among them, I am a flaming liberal; to the liberals, a hidebound conservative.
This leaves many of them dissatisfied. But I ask them why I, or anyone, should have to identify with one side or the other. Politics in America is a team sport for those who make it their living. But for the rest of us, we ought to be able to pick and choose depending on the issues.
I acknowledge that joining a team provides a sense of comfort and identity. But comfort is not the point of education. And identity can get in the way of independent thought.
Independent thought doesn’t seem to be what the legislators had in mind in requiring my students to study history. Or if they did have it in mind, it has slipped the minds of more than a few of their current successors.
Nor is independent thought popular these days in much of the university world, where too many students learn to keep their thoughts to themselves lest they run afoul of standards that become increasingly intolerant of dissent.
All of which suggests that the study of history is more important than ever, if only so we can figure out how the idea of independent thought became, itself, an independent thought.