Note: I wrote this as an English assignment and had to stay within a word limit. The debate is slightly wider that I was able to include. One point in particular is that the wording of the proposed bill does not specifically refer to African-American or Mexican-American History, rather it adds the term ‘comprehensive’ into the requirement for American History semester credits. I, like others, interpret ‘comprehensive’ to mean ‘not specialist/focussed’ which in Texas tends to be related to its history with Mexico. I applaud the Texas Education Code for requiring a student majoring in biochemistry to spend some time learning about history, however do not believe their choice of topic should be restricted.
State Senator Dan Patrick filed Texas State Senate Bill 1128 on 5 March 2013. I became aware of this proposed bill when a friend posted a link to a petition on change.org campaigning for the bill to be withdrawn. The petition to withdraw the bill, started by Carmen Guzman-Martinez, implied that passing this bill would result in history courses with a focus on African-American or Mexican-American history not earning academic credit towards a degree from a public university in Texas. I agree with the petitioner because removing the credit from these courses devalues them in the eyes of potential students. In my opinion all efforts to increase knowledge are valuable and students should be recognised for their desire to learn any topic.
Articles in the press claim the bill was proposed following recommendations made in a research paper published by the National Association of Scholars. In the paper “Recasting History” Richard W. Fonte et al interpret facts on history classes in two Texas universities and present recommendations for change. In their research Fonte et al divided history into eleven broad categories: Diplomatic and International Relations; Economic and Business; Military; Philosophical and Intellectual; Political; Religious; Scientific, Environmental, and Technological; Social History with Gender Emphasis; Social History with Racial and Ethnic Emphasis; Social History with Social Class Emphasis and a final category of Social and Cultural History – Other.
The researchers analysed the syllabi and readings for eighty-five courses offered in the 2010-2011 fall semester at the University of Texas, Austin (“UT”) and Texas A&M University, College Station (“A&M”). They found that the topics taught do not evenly represent all eleven categories; there are more readings on topics addressing Race, Class, and Gender (“RCG”) than on the other topics. The recommendations presented in the paper include reviews of the curriculum, hiring faculty members with diversified research interests, diversifying the graduate program, designing better courses and developing checklists of essential reading.
The facts as presented cannot be refuted; the history courses offered at UT and A&M reflect that research interests of faculty members tend to be on RCG issues. This should not be a surprise; academics will always seek out departments with research tendencies on their own topic of interest and offer courses, including graduate programs, in their specialism. There is usually a sound reason why a particular academic department has its specialism. “Recasting History” includes the example of a history department in Maine which tends to emphasise environmental and science topics, which reflect the geographic environment of that department. There has not been a significant migration of African-Americans nor a war with Mexico in Maine. Given the difference in the actual histories of these two states, the respective specialisations in history courses offered in Texas and Maine merely reflect the local topics of interest. Being of regional significance should enhance the value of these courses relative to those not directly related to local history.
One of the specific findings in “Recasting History” is that none of the courses included Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as required reading. This is considered symptomatic of not enough attention being paid to “fundamental documents and texts of American History” (11). As the courses under discussion are college courses, it is reasonable to expect that fundamentals were covered in High School. College is meant to take students beyond the fundamentals. Suggesting that courses need to be better designed based on this finding implies that High School history is inadequate, not that African-American history is less important.
Moreover, the law requiring undergraduates to take six semester credit hours in history was intended to “increase general civic awareness … of college students” (19). Focusing on matters relevant to the proximity of Mexico makes courses on Mexican-American history more suited to meet that intention in Texas than a course on Philosophical history. Students at public universities tend to stay in the state in which they study. Knowing the history of their immediate surroundings will provide them with better insight into the civic society in which they live.
In conclusion, I cannot and will not dispute the facts in “Recasting History” and some of the recommendations of the report are worthwhile. For example the recommendation to “Keep Broad Courses Broad” gives students seeking a good overview of American History confidence that a course labeled as broad will not have a narrow focus (47). However, diluting a group of focused academics by hiring faculty members with wider disparity in research interests would reduce the academic benefit of specialised research groups and devalue their specialty. The next step, taken by State Senator Patrick, to further devalue specialist topics, is to remove their academic credit. In a society that champions education and freedom of speech, no one topic is more worthwhile studying than any other.
Fonte, Richard W, Wood, Peter W, and Thorne, Ashley. Recasting History: Are Race, Class, And Gender Dominating American History? New York: National Association of Scholars, 2013. Web. 18 April 2013
Guzman-Martinez, Carmen. “Texas Senator Dan Patrick, R-Houston: Stop Senate Bill 1128“ Change.org. Change.org Inc. Web. 18 April 2013