What Kind of History Should We Teach?

About two years ago I moved from Madison to Austin because I was convinced that the flagship university in Texas was building the best group of scholars and students in my field of study: international history, foreign policy, and leadership. The History Department at UT already had a distinguished group of faculty who study all parts of the globe and teach about what I call “the making of our modern world.” The History Department also housed the Normandy Scholars Program, devoted to the study of the Second World War, and an Institute for Historical Studies that brings the best scholars from around the world to campus to deepen our historical knowledge. Beyond the History Department, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs had a Global Policy Studies Program committed to training the next generation of ambassadors, national security advisors, and intelligence analysts. The Strauss Center for International Security and Law on campus sponsored research projects, including undergraduates and graduate students, that explored the making of foreign policy in the past and its lessons for the present.

What we are teaching at UT, in almost all of our history and related courses, is a plural history of how many different people and parts of America relate to one another.

This is a long list. No other campus could compare. That is why I prevailed on my Midwestern wife and my Madison-born children to move from a university that we loved in Wisconsin to the one we believed was doing the very best work in the field of study I care so passionately about. We made the correct decision because UT’s strengths in international history and foreign policy that I listed above are even greater than I realized before I arrived here. In addition, the leadership of UT and its generous alumni have continued to enhance our preeminence in this field of study. Just this week, President William Powers announced the creation of the William P. Clements Center on History, Strategy, and Statecraft at UT. We now have more distinguished historians teaching topics like the Cold War, the Civil War, American Foreign Policy, Strategy and Decision-Making, and the Nature of the International System than on any other non-military campus that I know in the country. I am very proud of that. From what I can tell, our alumni are very proud of that too.

These facts make the ideological claims of the National Association of Scholars about The University of Texas at Austin misleading, and frankly dumb. The report they will release this Thursday is entitled: “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?” At The University of Texas at Austin the answer is a resounding NO. Nothing in the report should convince you otherwise.

What the National Association of Scholars documents is that many of our courses taught by historians, including me, devote extensive time to lectures and readings about slavery, American Indians, labor unions, women’s suffrage, prohibition, civil rights, immigration, poverty, and the rise of suburbs. Some of our courses even discuss Rock n’Roll music, consumer culture, and the Internet. How scandalous! For some reason, the authors of the report seem to think these topics are “un-American.” It is almost as if a lesson that does not focus on a president or a war is a waste of time to the writers of this report.

No one cares more about teaching politics, foreign policy, and military affairs more than me. It is what I study. It is what I talk about all the time (so my wife and kids complain!). To teach the history of these subjects requires attention to slavery, American Indians, labor unions, women’s suffrage, and everything else I listed above. Politics do not occur in a vacuum. The outcomes of war are not decided only by a few smart men. Elections, like the one we just experienced, are driven by many factors that include race, class, and gender.

What kind of history should we teach? What kind of history do our students need? They are not well served by simple ideological pronouncements about America as the “greatest nation” or America as the “worst nation,” depending on your point of view. Young people can get extreme assertions on their iPhones without a professor in the room.

What students need is exposure to the complex ways in which various issues relate to one another in the real world. They need to understand how slavery caused a civil war. They need to think about the relationship between big corporations and local workers. They need to examine how mothers and fathers have reacted when their sons and daughters traveled far from our shores to defend our country. These and so many other issues of democracy, economy, and war are connected with the issues of race, class, and gender.

The National Association of Scholars report seems to demand a simple and one-sided history of just a few people. What we are teaching at UT, in almost all of our history and related courses, is a plural history of how many different people and parts of America relate to one another. What we are teaching is the beauty, the color, the promise, and also the challenge of contemporary America. What we are doing above all is to prepare our students to run a business or raise a family or serve their country in a world where success requires making connections between different ideas, memories, experiences, and peoples.

Nothing could be more American. It was, after all, James Madison who defined the greatness of American democracy as its pluralism. We are teaching pluralism in the history of foreign policy and race, economy and class, and, yes, war and gender. I wish skeptics from the National Association of Scholars and other groups would come and visit some of our courses. They have an open invitation to any of my lectures or seminars.

They have never come. Their report did not include a single campus visit or interview. They did not do their homework. If they did, they would see why I moved to Austin from another great university.  This is where serious history is studied and taught so well. If you haven’t been back in a while, come and see for yourself.

Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy at UT-Austin.


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