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Why would anyone claim UC doesn’t teach American history?

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | April 27, 2012

Back at the beginning of April, when Rick Santorum was still a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, he made a shocking claim about teaching in the University of California system:

“seven or eight of the California system of universities don’t even teach an American history course,” Santorum said. “It’s not even available to be taught.”

California news media quickly demonstrated that this claim was, to put it mildly, not credible. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow– a California native, — did a brilliant job disproving it from the easily available online course catalogue information anyone in the world can browse.

When Santorum did nothing to acknowledge his error, Maddow kept the pressure on– and today, the former senator and former presidential candidate admitted he was wrong.

Sort of.

What Santorum now claims he meant to say was that

none of the UC campuses teach a survey course in Western Civilization.

Maddow lost no time in showing that this revised claim is also false. So now, one supposes, we can wait to see if she receives another letter from Mr. Santorum acknowledging that he was wrong again. But whether he does or not, Mr. Santorum is not what is important here.

The question to consider is: why on earth would anyone try to make such bizarre claims?

As it happens, the source of Mr. Santorum’s false beliefs is completely obvious. At the time, he said it was something he had recently read.

A few days earlier, Peter Berkowitz wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal promoting these claims, based on something that claimed to be a research report, directed at the Regents of the University of California.

The source Berkowitz cited– indirectly the source of the misinformation Mr. Santorum continues to repeat– was written by a group calling itself the “California Association of Scholars”, described as “a division of the National Association of Scholars (NAS)”. For them, simply demonstrating that we do indeed teach courses on American history– and Western civilization– is not enough, because according to this reactionary advocacy group, UC faculty are teaching the wrong way.

They argue that even courses that seem to be about American history are actually subverting core American values, by such apparently unacceptable things as examining how difficult topics in American history like slavery shaped our past, or teaching about how progress towards social justice has been promoted in our history. This kind of teaching can move students to take direct action to improve life in the world today– and apparently, to this group, that kind of engagement is not what education should be about.

You have to develop a thick skin if you are going to teach in universities these days. University professors are routinely accused of not working hard enough for the money we are paid, by people who choose not to count the hours we spend outside the classroom, prepping classes, grading, supervising students in research, serving the university, the state, the country, and of course, doing research ourselves.

Still, that thick skin doesn’t prepare us for misrepresentations used to attack us for the successful education we do provide, year in and year out, to tens of thousands of students, many of them first generation college students whose access to education should be cause for pride.

Berkowitz gives a litany of what he, and the authors on whom he depends, see as defects in the education offered in the UC system:

None of the nine general campuses in the UC system requires students to study the history and institutions of the United States. None requires students to study Western civilization, and on seven of the nine UC campuses, including Berkeley, a survey course in Western civilization is not even offered. In several English departments one can graduate without taking a course in Shakespeare. In many political science departments majors need not take a course in American politics.

Again, none of this is actually true– except maybe the claim that UC campuses don’t require (all) students to take a specific set of courses. They do require all incoming students to have had sufficient American history to expect that they can go on to explore history in more depth. Including the history of other places in the world.

This, after all, is what distinguishes being a college student: you go beyond what you were taught in your previous stages of education. Higher education in the United States is not organized like secondary school. In universities, students learn in more depth about a smaller range of things, and about things not taught at lower levels. Their goal is to become expert enough to use their specialization– in disciplines as distinct as Chemistry, History, and Performance Studies– in their eventual career.

How do you accomplish that? Not by taking basic introductory courses.

Institutions of higher education offer students a wide array of rich offerings in history, political science, sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines that directly examine life in the US.

At Berkeley, every student is required to take a course in American Cultures.

As it happens, yesterday was the last class meeting of an American Cultures course I taught for the first time, where students read about the 19th century challenges of Mexican and European immigrants in Chicago, the ways that pre- and post-Civil War African Americans coped with limited power, and how Chinese immigrants in Gold Rush California found economic opportunities despite discrimination.

I am proud to introduce my students to these topics and provide them with the tools to read and judge them for themselves.

A university education is more than an inventory of specific courses. That far, Berkowitz’ sources and I agree: it isn’t enough to show that UC teaches American history and Western civilization.

What matters is what we teach students to do: in our case, read, think, write, and decide for themselves.

And that, apparently, is threatening in some circles.