No Diversity in College History Programs? A Diverse Opinion

The 27 August Wall Street Journal contained a brief collection of letters placed beneath the title:  “Where is the ‘Diversity’ in College History Programs?”

The comments are a continuation from previous pieces:  “Politicized Texts, Academic Freedom and Scholarship” from 6 August 2013;   “David J. Bogg:  Howard Zinn and the Art of Anti-Americanism” from 12 August 2013; and “A Bleak View of America From the Wilderness of Zinn” from 19 August 2013.

The articles above were accessible to non subscribers at the time of this posting.

Subscribers to WSJ, should be able to access an additional piece:  “Benno Schmidt:  Mitch Daniels’s Gift to Academic Freedom” from 30 July 2013 about the Zinn History textbook.

I’ll admit that the vast majority of books I have read in my life, regardless of subject, have been “leftist” in orientation.  I open the cover toward the left, read the lines from left to right, and then turn the page to the left.

Aside from the above as my personal experience in graduate school, when secondary source bibliography has a significant emphasis placed upon differing schools of historical thought, you’re going to see left, right, up, down, North, South, West, and East with every compass orientation within.  Chances are as probable as getting wet standing outside in a Tropical Storm that you are reading primary documents as well, making your own interpretations, and then comparing and contrasting those with secondary works from the various schools of thought along with placing everything into context with other works and the period.

In many ways the worst thing to learn “history” is to read simply “a textbook,” especially if said “textbook” is a popular best seller among the masses.  Often it’s a best seller and makes money for the writer because it appeals to the ideas of a specific audience.

I do not believe it is possible to write any observation or synopsis of an event without some slant in the piece.  That’s not a criticism of authors; it’s my feeling that whenever something is viewed from even a perspective that is less than a degree different from the next creates a slightly different image.  Even when we are able to make that 360 degree circle, altering the distance from what is viewed changes perception as well.

Removing professors who taught me, individuals with whom I attended graduate school and others who I have at least met at a conference or other occasion, my personal favorite historian is C. Vann Woodward.  That should not be a shock or revelation to anyone as my primary field is Southern history.  Is Woodward the only writer I read on the subject?  Of course he is not.  Do I subscribe to every conclusion set forth by Woodward?  The answer is no I do not.  Do I think it is possible to teach or to write on something within my area of Southern history without some consideration of Woodward’s works?  That answer is also no as other materials are and in my opinion should be compared and contrasted due to the breadth of Woodward’s research and writings.

Richard Hofstadter is another author, who while not mentioned directly in any of these Wall Street Journal opinions, is significant as to his influence on the specific debate.  For me Hofstadter is not enjoyable reading.  My lack of enjoyment is not necessarily based on the opinions set forth because Hofstadter’s research and citations are excellent.  I have cited Hofstadter many times in my own research and assigned his books to classes.  The writing style is different, and I do find myself rereading often just for clarity.  A few friends do not share my opinion as they can read Hofstadter as easily as anything else.

Should someone read Hofstadter in my opinion?  That is answer is a definitive yes.  Easy to read or not, opinions different from yours or not, the breadth of Hofstadter’s research and writing also demands contrast and comparison just as I believe with Woodward.

History is not a simple or easy subject to study.  There are some accomplishments in the past that will fill you with joy, but there are also tragedies and atrocities which seem nightmares but are reality and not dreams.  Every semester I meet several students who “love history,” but who later drop or hate particular history courses regardless of instructor.  Often the subject the student “loves” is not history.  It is actually trivia.   Often the student hatred results from information which does not conform easily to their established perception.  There are multiple perspectives to different events.

Most have probably heard the clichés as to why studying history is important.  “How can you know where you are headed if you do not know where you have been” is one of my favorites because there is much truth in that statement in my opinion.  History, however, is more of a systems analysis like you find in technological fields.  Instead of stagnant parts, history is fluid as people and conditions continuously change resulting in actions and inactions taking place in both predictable and unpredictable venues and times.  The study involves critical thinking and adaptation as you hope to apply past successes while not repeating and learning from past failures.

History is not a textbook.  It is not a random array of quotes or events.  In my opinion it is impossible to write the definitive biography or account regardless of length, quotes, events covered, or citations.  There is always something additional which is overlooked either by accident or intentionally.

My goal is not to indoctrinate.  My purpose is not to manufacture either clones or disciples.  If I’m successful, the students will have discovered or further honed an ability to think critically, to compare and contrast, to explain how they reached conclusions or why they made decisions, to adapt those skills for application in any area, and to convey their ideas whether by the pen, voice, or other instrument.  If I have some luck with that success, the students will also understand the trials and triumphs of those before them.  They will have a sense of the blood, sweat, and tears spilled as well as the laughter generated by previous generations.

I begin every course with some variation of the following:  “Every person in this room today is here only because someone before you either did something or failed to do something.  That someone could be someone you know, but it is also someone who you do not know and possibly never knew existed.”  Until human beings become identical, there is a vast diversity on who that someone might be, and I doubt that someone was alone.