Thursday, June 29, 2006

Historians More Likely to Indoctrinate Students

I was doing some random searching last week and came across This is one of those websites that allows students who feel like their professors or schools are pushing "sociopolitical agendas" and "supplanting, suppressing, and ultimately excluding alternative views" a place to publicly air their grievances.

I didn't find very many of the stories I examined that compelling, but what did interest me was that close to 30% of those listed on the site as being guilty of indoctrination were history professors. I found this pretty startling given that your average student probably takes one college level history course in four years. Therefore, if one was making predictions on how many history teachers would be listed on such a site based strictly on the numbers it should be around 2.5%.

So of course, I've been wondering what the heck is it about history or history professors that makes them over-represented among those perceived to be indoctrinating their students? My best guess would that that history is one of the most political subjects taught on college campuses. Moreover, any interpretation given on how good a president was Lincoln, or how effective was the New Deal, or what was the treatment of Native Americans can be related to some current political or ideological debate. If you take a side on whether or not Martin Luther King, Jr. was essential to the Civil Rights Movement, someone in class could argue you are liberal or conservative, even if you later interpreted another event in a contradictory way.

I am sure there are some out there who would argue that it is the professor's job to present all the various interpretations to students and let them decide which is correct. And I think that in upper level classes this is more attainable. But in survey courses, students need some direction - some analysis of events, if history is going to make sense. It is the professor's responsibility in survey classes to sift through the various interpretations using the analytical skills they acquired at graduate school and working with the accepted paradigms of the profession to present to students the best understanding of events currently available.

While there is nothing wrong with providing survey students with a glimpse into some of the debates surround historical issues (especially ones that are not clear cut), at the same time it is not indoctrination to present a standard interpretation of history even if it might support or undermine a current political issue.


Ahistoricality said...

I'd forgotten about that site. So has everyone else, apparently: only the most recent half dozen complaints are less than a year old. One could conclude that the academy has so successfully taken the lessons of David Horowitz, et al. to heart, that it is no longer an issue....

Phidippides said...

But what kind of "standard interpretation" are we talking about? I don't think it's hard to foresee situations where the views of the loudest group become the self-proclaimed "standard" position, even though it's merely a will to promote a socio-political agenda.

So where does that leave us? Well, if bias cannot be eliminated, it can at least be offset a bit by a balance in one's presentation.