History and the Culture Wars

Update 3: Yikes! I missed this direct response from the History Department at the University of Texas — Austin.

Update 2: I am pleased that Richard Fonte commented on my post. I also want to add a link to James Grossman and Elaine Carey’s recent response to the NAS report (published in The Chronicle.)

Update: I have added links to several other good blog posts addressing the NAS report at the bottom of my post.

The past few months have witnessed pundits of all persuasions declaring that the culture war is over. Conservative commentator Matt Lewis recently wrote in The Week that conservatives lost, and Ann Friedman’s sub-title in the current TimeOut Chicago promises to explain “Why liberals have won the battles on gay and abortion rights, immigration and drug legalization.” As a historian, I can only caution against such optimism (which saddens me.) In my world, the culture war is very much engaged, as a recently released report from the National Association of Scholars (NAS) makes clear.

The NAS describes themselves as an “independent membership association of academics and others working to foster intellectual freedom and to sustain the tradition of reasoned scholarship and civil debate in America’s colleges and universities.” An examination of their staff and board biographies suggests a preponderance of “conservative” (or what I prefer to more accurately describe as right-wing) weltanschauung. It should therefore come as no surprise to members of the discipline that “Recasting History: Are Race, Class and Gender Dominating American History?” raises perennial right-wing concerns about a lack of good, old-fashioned American Exceptionalism in history survey classes. The central assertion is that issues of race, class, and gender are displacing diplomatic, military, and economic history emphasis in our public universities.

The report is reminiscent of the debate over the National History Standards in the mid-90s; much of the text could be mistaken for Lynne Cheney’s Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Stopped Making Sense — and What We Can Do About It. Then, as well as now, the bogeyman was a post-modern (i.e., “liberal”) approach to Social History, which tends to complicate the historical narrative by granting agency to people other than rich, male WASPs who hold positions of power. Cheney — a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities — argued that teaching history is a matter of presenting objective facts that have inherent value and remain static over time. Strangely enough, she seems to indicate that the only useful work available in the discipline is to uncover new primary source material or examine previously ignored events.

The tenth recommendation of the NAS report is to 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.

This comes right out of Cheney’s Introduction. You can even see the cross-pollination on page 14:

The humanities are about more than politics… about more than social power. What gives them their abiding worth are truths that pass beyond time and circumstance; truths that, transcending accidents of class, race, and gender, speak to us all.

To many, these words seem not only reasonable but also wise. However, there is a great danger in conflating history with a recounting of historical events.[1] When we strip events of their context — the act of memorialization — we rely upon memory to act as a substitute. Memory is easily co-opted and shaped into a useful story, or folded into mythology. Whether pre-meditated or not, this is a common tactic for the right-wing, and it highlights the gap between the perceived and actual process of conducting historical research. Ironically, it is the removal of context and a robust historical narrative that threatens our understanding of past events and prevents uncovering the Truths that conservatives like Cheney value.

It is not surprising that the NAS report focuses on Texas universities. Texas is ground-zero in the battle over history curricula. The Texas State Board of Education is infamous for its efforts to dismiss educational rigor and substitute ideological positions — Creationism and American Exceptionalist mythology — in the disciplines of natural science and history, and right-wing political advocates like David Barton[2] are given tremendous agency all the way to the Governor’s office. The audience for these reports is the body of political decision-makers that write laws and fund educational programs. “Recasting History” is simply part of a continuing effort to stoke the embers of educational activism.

The NAS report might be easily dismissed by many, but it is a wake-up call for people inside and outside of the academy. For historians, it demonstrates not only that the right-wing will continue to attack and attempt to discredit the academy, but also that a strategy for defeating this charlatanism is non-existent. This issue is not academic, it is political, and until the appropriate tactics are utilized groups like the NAS will continue to call good history into question. For those on the outside, the culture war has not ended; you are simply looking in the wrong places. The right-wing might be dispirited over gay marriage in Washington state, but they have not stopped asserting themselves in areas that will have dramatic consequences on the lives of everyone. If the discipline of History is any example, many battles remain before victory is declared.

For more discussion see:

Joseph M. Adelman at Publick-Occurrences 2.0
Historiann: History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present
Robert Jensen on Academe Blog
James Grossman and Elaine Carey at The Chronicle
Response from UT — Austin

[1] For an excellent example of conflict between interpretative history and social mythology, see the New York Times examination of the Enola Gay affair. For a whimsical look at the differences between historical events and history, see my previous blog post, “Pulled Pork as a Historical Event.”
[2] Barton, a controversial figure for years, recently had his book The Jefferson Lies pulled from the shelves by publisher Thomas Nelson due to the number of falsehoods discovered in the text. Works like The Jefferson Lies are an example of how historical events outside of context are easily shaped into an alternative narrative.

One thought on “History and the Culture Wars

  1. How unfortunate that Michael Miles would resurrect the culture wars and the spector of ghost of Lynn Cheney and her tenure at the National Endowment of the Humanities to attack the NAS study. Actually, nothing could be further from the reality of the NAS project. If there was a concern that the NAS report wished to remove social history out of the American Narrative, a careful reading will easily see that it is not the purpose of the report. The appropriate role of social history is recognized as legitimate and necessary in the NAS study. Rather than comparison to Lynn Cheney during her tenure at NEH, the more proper comparison would be with Bruce Cole and his tenure. As the primary writer of the NAS report and a former director of the We the People initiative at NEH under Bruce Cole, I challenge anyone to look at the record of NEH during this period and you will see many social history projects were funded and many social history scholars were funded. The NEH funded a comprehensive and inclusive history of America, far beyond the narrow confines that you are suggesting are recommended in the NAS study.
    We endorse in the NAS study, just as we did at NEH an inclusive and comprehensive picture of American History.
    We need not fight the culture wars of an earlier era. The NAS study recognizes the role of social history as part of (but not the only narrative) of American History.
    Richard Fonte, NAS report writer
    Former Director, We the People, NEH under Bruce Cole

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