(OPINION) The Decline Of Academic History
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As a high school and college instructor of history, geography, and anthropology for almost 40 years, I experienced the politicization of history into gradual anti-American themes in textbooks. The pedagogical trend in that direction was accelerated by the popular text by Professor Howard Zinn, “A People’s History of the United States,” read by millions of students and used by thousands of teachers since the 1980s.
Zinn had an enormous influence on high school and college students and teachers, emphasizing, as Stanford University professor of education history, Sam Wineburg said, in an interview with Stanford News reporter David Plotnikoff. Wineberg said Zinn’s textbook had a “perspective from the far left, using questionable secondary sources, overlooking alternative perspectives, and emphasizing oppression theory.”
My own introduction to historical study began in the 1950s, when my high school and college history instructors taught positive and patriotic American history, while not ignoring, as another social studies course was titled, “problems of democracy.” Since then, in my view, too much history has been taught that encourages students to hate and be ashamed of America, although legions of courageous teachers have rejected that narrative.
In two August columns, Powerline blog writer Steven Hayward discussed the negative emphasis in the teaching of U.S. history and shared the initially courageous perspective of liberal historian, Professor James Sweet of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and president of the American Historical Association.
As Mr. Hayward noted, the positive teaching of history through biography isn’t done much by professional historians anymore but is a popular theme with secular authors. I used that method in my teaching because biography analyzes people in the context of their own time, without imposing the contemporary politics and ideologies of the present.
Hayward quoted Professor Sweet: “I am troubled by the historical erasure and narrow politics of contemporary narratives. Doing history with integrity requires us to interpret the past not through the optics of the present, but within the worlds of our historical actors.” History,’ Sweet continues, “is a way to study the uneven process of change over time,” which, Professor Sweet explained, requires “resisting the imposition of today’s political ideologies upon the past.”
Hayward pondered “how this mild bit of heresy” would “agitate” the politically correct Twitter mob and induce them to “pick up their pitchforks” and condemn the publication of this “appalling” article by the AHA.
Steven Hayward was prescient and continued the topic in his rapid follow-up column about Professor Sweet’s apology for his thoughts after sharp criticism from academia. Sweet recanted under fire, expressing regret “that my Perspectives on History column generated anger and dismay among AHA members.” Sweet said his article “did not convey what I intended, and I regret the way I have alienated colleagues and friends.” Professor Sweet promised to be “listening and learning.”
Ideological capitulation is required to survive in the liberal arts academy today. No “diversity” of opinion is allowed by the Leftists, who preach “diversity” in ethnicity, race, and now even gender, but not in speech or thought.
Mr. Hayward summarized the situation: “There was nothing wrong with Prof. Sweet’s article and he knows it. Capitulation to a Twitter mob tells you all you need to know about the cowardly character” of contemporary academia.
This intellectual disease first manifested itself in the liberal arts institutions of “higher learning.” Unfortunately, the virus has made its way today in the “hard sciences” of medicine and technology, and in our military institutions.
No wonder college enrollments have dropped, and enrollment in trade schools has flourished. Civics needs to be taught in schools and colleges but labeled “Government.” In my view, political “science” should be widely offered, as well, but also called “government.”
Hopefully, academic integrity and standards will return to the liberal arts and humanities, as student enrollments are declining, and understandably and regrettably so.
Listen to Tom each Tuesday and Thursday morning after the 11 AM news as he joins Andy Brownell for Rochester Today on News-Talk 1340 KROC-AM and 96.9 FM.
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