By Harbeer Sandhu
Illustration by Michael C. Rodriguez
Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. – George Orwell
The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. – Kurt Vonnegut
A proposed new law would redefine what counts as history in Texas universities. Early in March, Texas State Senator Daniel Patrick introduced bill SB 1128 that reads, in part:
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 person unless the person has credit for six semester hours or its equivalent from courses providing a comprehensive survey of American history. A student is entitled to submit as much as three semester hours of credit or its equivalent from courses providing a comprehensive survey of Texas history in partial satisfaction of this requirement.
Did you get that? Only “a comprehensive survey” of U.S. history and/or Texas history will count toward graduation requirements-no more choosing among women’s studies, African-American studies, labor studies, Mexican-American studies or other such allegedly “Un-American” activities. If this bill passes, students will be required to take dull, broad survey courses very similar to courses they took in high school, with the only choice being whether the student would take a) two semesters of U.S. history or b) one semester of U.S. history coupled with one semester of Texas history.
Usually, such survey courses are broken up into two semesters: the first semester skims over tens of thousands of years of indigenous migration, history, and culture, but gets to Columbus’ arrival in 1492 within the first week. The Age of Exploration is likewise glossed over without getting into gory details about the brutal and dishonorable ways in which native people were subjugated and eliminated (which gave rise to the “necessity” of slaves for labor) under European colonialism. That all goes very quickly, because “American” history in such courses really doesn’t start in earnest until the English arrive and the Pilgrims have their nice little foodie gathering at Plymouth Rock. Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, and candied yams-you know, the works.
The rest of the semester covers stuff about George Washington and cherry trees, Ben Franklin and his lost keys, the French and Indian War, the Stamp Act, maybe something about Crispus Attucks and Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention, names, dates, etc., etc., blah blah blah. This is how they want to define “American history.” The semester ends some time right before or right after the Civil War, then the next semester picks up with Westward Expansion and the Spanish-American War, gets into some of the robber baron stuff (but not too deeply into labor movements), and fortunately (for the teacher) the semester ends with time running out at about the Civil Rights Movement. Another semester has gone by with no need to cover contemporary issues-which might inspire controversy and which might require the teacher to speak to why some people, today, still hold the short end of the historical stick while others inherit the benefits of their ancestors’ land and labor.
That is what you call a “survey course.” They teach a very broad, general mythology of “America.” (I put “America” in quotes because America is a hemisphere, not a singular, 237-year-old nation-state.) The emphasis is on wars and external conflicts and big personalities (i.e. dead white men)-like in your typical high school history class. Not much time is spent learning about the lives of small landowners, tenant farmers, slaves, Indians, women, workers, and immigrants, and how the lives they led affect our lives today.
But college is supposed to be different. Higher education typically provides students with a more focused and specialized curriculum. Since the 1960s, scholarship has dug deeper into the lives of these “common” people-people more likely to be our ancestors than Ben Franklin or James Madison-and therefore an examination of these “common people” has the potential to teach a greater number of students about their place in today’s society than the study of “great men” ever could.
Supporters of this change seem to think that we all need to attend the same classes to be considered “educated” or qualified for a job or something. I consider myself a pretty cosmopolitan, worldly, well-qualified person, but the private university I attended in New York allowed me to take courses such as “The Evolution of Scientific Thought,” which covered medieval Arabia, Europe, and classical Greco-Roman topics to fulfill my history requirement. Did I suffer for that? No. On the contrary-it was enriching, and it took nothing away from the children’s storytime version of “American history” I got in high school, either.
So what’s really going on? Why is Dan Patrick, a second-term state senator representing the likes of Spring, Tomball, Cypress, and Jersey Village, who introduced a bill trying to ban abortion within his very first month in office, attempting to rewrite the college core curriculum?
Critics say this bill is the beginning of an attempt to eliminate fields of scholarship such as women’s studies, African-American studies, labor studies, and Mexican-American studies. (Mexican-American studies has already been banned in Arizona schools.) I would add that Dan Patrick’s SB 1128 is perfectly in line with the Texas Republican Party’s mission, explicitly stated in their 2012 party platform, that they “oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills . . . critical thinking skills and similar programs that . . . have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs.”
The bill is inspired by a report issued from the National Association of Scholars, a right-wing think tank founded in 1987 to take on affirmative action and “liberal bias” in academia. It is funded by a number of conservative backers including the Adolph Coors Foundation and the Koch brothers. Their recent report, called “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?” looks at the reading lists from history courses at UT and A&M and rates books on their content relating to race, class, and gender. (According to this report, both “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” are too fixated on race. Go figure!) Among the report’s recommendations: “Depoliticize history. Historians and professors of United States history should counter mission creep by returning to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.”
Basically, the report is recommending the impossible—it calls for the “depoliticization” of history even as it politicizes history. Needless to say, the report’s methodology has been called into question, but who needs valid methodologies when you ain’t got no Higher Order Thinking Skills? Check and mate!
Patrick has stated in a Facebook post that the bill is intended “to be sure that our core curriculum in history represents a comprehensive understanding of our history in areas of the economy, politics, war, and other significant events that have helped shape our past and who we are today.” The report’s author, Richard Fonte, says he, “found that all too often the course readings gave strong emphasis to race, class, and gender social history, an emphasis so strong that it diminished the attention given to other subjects in American history (such as military, diplomatic, religious, intellectual history).”
So there you have it-they want to rewrite the past (or unwrite what’s been uncovered about the past since the 1960s) to maintain the economic, political, militaristic status quo. What’s strange is that nobody is suggesting that race, class, and gender can’t still be studied in the same context as war, diplomacy, and religion. The UT Department of History has issued a really great response which claims that, “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.”
The Arizona law that Dan Patrick’s SB 1128 appears loosely based upon prohibits schools from offering courses or classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” That sounds pretty reasonable, but I am here to tell anybody who alleges that “ethnic studies” and “ethnic literature” promote societal fragmentation has got it all wrong, and their plan is going to backfire. Respecting our diverse backgrounds brings people together-it promotes inclusiveness through mutual respect-whereas the bleached, sanitized, whitewashed version of history they want to promote doesn’t fool anybody and only drives students away from school because they know they’re being lied to.
Similar to Jan Brewer, Russell Pearce, and others I’ve written about surrounding the Librotraficante Caravan to Arizona, these individuals are just afraid of the USA’s inevitable demographic shift. They are afraid of the browning of America, that they’ll lose power and control-that when students are taught the truth about their history they learn pride, and when they learn pride they gain self-respect, and when they gain self-respect they’ll stay in school and won’t let the bosses push them around and exploit them. Honestly, I can’t blame the bosses for being scared, but we must not let this bill pass. It will be much easier to prevent its passage than to challenge it in court or repeal it after the fact. Please, call your state legislators today and tell these “small-government” Republicans to stop meddling in collegiate affairs.