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The Rich Male Whiteness, It Burns

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A bunch of conservative Texas groups are taking history departments at the University of Texas and Texas A&M to task because they supposedly talk too much about race, class, and gender instead of rich white guys and awesome wars and America Rocks and Let’s Invade Iran! and other such things. Texas has a public school requirement that each college student must take 2 U.S. history classes. So these groups decided to look at syllabi to see what they could see. The answer, too much teaching topics that might make students question the current tenets of the Republican Party.

So I teach a wide variety of courses. Right now, that includes the first half of the U.S. history survey, Civil War and Reconstruction, Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Environmental History, and U.S. West. We have senior people who teach Labor History, but somewhere down the road I’ll be able to pick that up. If you look at my syllabi without any context as to what those classes hold, those classes probably look pretty white, pretty male, pretty middle and upper class. All of those groups are covered plenty, I assure you. On the other hand, you can only teach the Civil War without talking about slavery if you subscribe to the Louisiana Confederate Museum version of history. You could theoretically teach the Gilded Age as the Awesome Age and talk only about how wonderful Jay Gould and Henry Clay Frick were but that would not only be stupid but an incredibly boring class for me and the students. But the idea that we don’t talk about rich white dudes is crazy. Now, we don’t talk about them as heroes. And of course that’s the point for these conservatives, that we should be–John D. Rockefeller was a great man! William McKinley was totally justified in invading the Philippines. As for women, well get back in the kitchen.

My goal in teaching history is to give students a wide range of perspectives. That includes race, class, and gender. It includes nature and sexuality. It includes politics and foreign policy. It doesn’t include too much in the way of military tactics because that bores me, although obviously I have to do a certain amount of it in the Civil War course. It probably should include more on religion, but we all have our weaknesses. It includes talking about the rich and poor, white and black and Native American and Latino and Asian. It is about men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, adults and children, right-wingers and left-wingers. It’s about helping students acquire the tools to make the connections they want to make between the past and the issues they care about in their own lives. It’s about teaching students to read old documents and why that matters. It’s about exposing them to the world of silent film. It’s about teaching writing and critical thinking.

In other words, it’s just standard work in the humanities.

But of course conservatives are outraged by this. The conservative goal in teaching history is to replicate the Republican Party platform in a new generation. Conservatives see history professors as the enemy and they have declared war upon us. The only option we have is to push back, not in favor of a certain leftist ideology, because many historians aren’t leftists by any definition. But rather to push back for a multiplicity of perspectives, for presenting students with information that can help them make connections between the past and the present, whether they become more informed conservatives or outraged feminist activists or they just learn a little more about the history of the television they love so well.

And as for why we should create courses to worship Alexander Graham Bell at the college level, well you’ll have to answer that one for me.

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