The discipline of history has become the subject of much attention in discussions of the National Association of Scholars report, “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” While President Mills has rebutted some of the most egregious errors recently made regarding history at Bowdoin, a deeper response seems fitting. What follows are my personal views, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my colleagues in the Department of History or the College.
As the controversy has shown, many self-described conservatives have objected to the intrusion of “multiculturalism” into the academy, and particularly into the teaching of our nation’s past. Their concern seems to presuppose a time—a point before we took seriously the historical plight of people of color, or addressed the neglected histories of women or workers—when scholarship was both apolitical and non-ideological.
Of course, no such time ever existed. The neglect of women as social actors, of differences in social class, or of the role people of color have played in our national story—these topics have never been ideologically or politically neutral. Such neglect, in fact, buttressed structures of power that denied marginalized social groups the right to participate equally in the promise and benefits of American life: black people and Native Americans had no claim on the nation because they had no history, gender did not matter because the public forum was assumed to be male, and considerations of class were unnecessary because class did not exist in America.
For the last half-century, historians have addressed these absences in a range of ways, none more “political” than was the previous policy of neglect and disparagement. A return to the long-ago days when such issues did not matter would not erase the reality of their history. Racial injustice, the social consequences of capitalism’s development, and the organization of society along gender lines—these are simple historical truths. Their neglect or denial serve no conceivable academic purpose, only a political one. The academy’s turn to considering such issues did not begin the politicization of history scholarship, for the neglect of these issues was itself political.
Rectifying that neglect does not mean that every history course at Bowdoin need focus on the marginalized and, indeed, many do not. But it does mean that to teach the story of America by actively denying the history of the marginalized is indeed a very political act. This, though, is exactly what the authors of “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” call for.
The report laments that “18 percent of the curriculum” at Bowdoin is cross-listed in “studies” programs, which it quite erroneously asserts are dedicated to identity politics and ethnic cheerleading. The “proper” proportion, the report states, is “zero.”
Some of my American history courses have been singled out in this regard. Wood and Toscano’s response to President Mills dismisses my course on the Civil War because it is cross-listed in Africana Studies, my course on Reconstruction because it addresses the effort to create a biracial democracy after the Civil War, and my course “War and Society” because it dares to consider interactions between Europeans and non-Europeans. Yet could one teach a complete history of the Civil War without considering slavery and emancipation? Or Reconstruction without discussing the enfranchisement of African-American men? Or the expansion of Europe without discussing the people those expanding Europeans met?
The NAS’s criticisms of history at Bowdoin assume that some subjects in history are political while others are not, and that to teach a particular subject must necessarily mean to impart a single contemporary ideological perspective. This presents the practice of history as little more than a highly ideological zero-sum game, in which interest group politics take precedence over critical thinking.
In fact, the values and methods of disciplines such as history exist precisely to preserve scholarship from becoming nothing more than a shouting match. We can study something without endorsing it. Thinking about class does not advocate Marxism, considering gender does not espouse feminism, and investigating African-Americans does not make one a black nationalist. On the other hand, to study human societies while consciously evading issues of race, class or gender—that takes work, and an active ideological commitment to eschewing categories of analysis that have become as fundamental to academic discourse as those of, say, the nation, or the individual, or rights. By NAS logic, neutrality is achievable only by actively denying the experience of the marginal. But a history curriculum purposefully neglectful of the marginalized is hardly shorn of ideology.
Consider the ultimate consequence of viewing history through NAS lenses: if we cannot incorporate the history of the marginalized without engaging in identity politics, then actively excluding the marginalized must also constitute an identity politics—one dedicated to celebrating the achievements of the non-marginal at the expense of historical truth.
This is precisely the kind of history the great intellectual W.E.B. DuBois rejected when he spoke of the need to include the stories of black people in the national tale. Was the purpose of revising history to elevate blacks over whites, or sow dissent and disunity? “No,” he asserted, “it is simply to establish the Truth, on which Right in the future may be built.”
No true account of the American past can be complete, he argued, unless and until it was told so as not to exclude the contributions of some over others.
I believe it a great mistake for professed conservatives to concede this ground. Those who claim that freedom and liberty constitute their foundational academic concern have, it seems to me, a great interest in considering the stories of those who have sacrificed so much to expand these principles and make them real for all.
True, incorporating the struggle for freedom is not always a pleasant task. It is difficult indeed to unqualifiedly celebrate founders who understood slavery to be a violation of their principles and yet nonetheless wrote chattel bondage into their system of governance. The Civil War looks far less triumphal when we consider the failure of Reconstruction to guarantee the promise of emancipation for four million former slaves.
But to purposefully neglect the difficult consequences of a full history degrades academic values and demeans our integrity as scholars. As DuBois wrote:
“If…we are going to use history for our pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego, and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment, then we must give up the idea of history as a science or as an art using the results of science, and admit frankly that we are using a version of historic fact in order to influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish.”
We do not endorse one kind of history over any other at Bowdoin. We do not make a priori assertions that some subjects and methods are better than others. We are proud that a small department such as ours covers such an incredibly broad range of periods, places and approaches. And we are grateful that other departments and programs on campus supplement the historical knowledge students may acquire at Bowdoin. To any objective and reasoning observer, the record of the department stands for itself: we are a professional and dedicated bunch, largely typical of our peer institutions, and well regarded inside and outside the academy.
Ultimately, the question comes down to this: why is it important to study the past? As history educators, our task is clear: to offer the skills and knowledge necessary for our exceptionally capable students to develop the answers to that question for themselves.
Patrick Rael is an associate professor of history.