Course Correction

What's really behind Dan Patrick's bill on graduation requirements at the state's public universities?
Tue March 19, 2013 9:30 am
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It wouldn't be a legislative session without a good old-fashioned fight over school curriculae, and last week, just as the window of opportunity was closing, Dan Patrick, a Republican senator from Houston, stepped up to the plate. His new bill, SB 1128 , would tweak the current graduation requirements for students at public colleges and universities (six credits in American history, or three in Texan history and three in American history) to specify that those credits have to come from "comprehensive survey" courses.

Patrick's reasoning is that the point of the history requirement is for students to graduate from college with a general grounding in American history. The code is vague enough, however, that many meet the requirement by taking courses that focus on more specialized topics, such as the cultural history of alcohol and drugs (which is among the current options at the University of Texas ).

Critics took a different view. The Texas Observer , covering the complaints, summarized Patrick's bill as an attempt to "whitewash" American history by diverting students from studying the history of underrepresented groups. Within days, activists from Librotraficante, an Arizona-based activist group, had arrived in Austin, where they met with Patrick's staff. In their view, Patrick's bill is effectively the same as the one that Arizona passed in 2010—the bill that banned history courses that would (in the state's view) foster racial antagonism, appeal specifically to one ethnic group, or promote the overthrow of the federal government. All of this elicited an angry response from Patrick, who took to his Facebook page to argue that the criticism was "ridiculous."

To be clear, Patrick is correct on the main point. The Arizona law applied to the K-12 system and was written in response to a Mexican-American studies curriculum that schools in Tucson had introduced several years before. (The law was also challenged in court, and last week, a federal judge ruled that the ban was mostly constitutional.)

Patrick's bill applies to universities, and it doesn't ban anything. Still, as Paul Burka noted at BurkaBlog, this is micromanaging . And pedagogically speaking, the Texas bill might not result in better outcomes for history students. To provide a genuinely "comprehensive" view of American history in one semester would be no small feat. High schools try to do it in a year, and the result is that millions of students graduate with the vague impression that history skidded to an inelegant halt sometime during the Ford administration.

More to the point, perhaps, is that it's easy to see why people would be skeptical of Patrick's intentions. He was apparently inspired to file the bill after reading a January 2013 report from the National Association of Scholars (NAS), which examined syllabi used by dozens of history professors at UT Austin and Texas A&M and concluded that most of them are paying disproportionate attention to race, gender, and class.

The NAS is hardly "the intellectual Ku Klux Klan," as Librotraficante's lead organizer put it in an interview with the Houston Press . The group does, however, have a conservative tilt, and the report (PDF) includes some questionable arguments. It notes, for example, that "among readings (excluding textbooks and anthologies) assigned individually by history faculty members in what were supposed to be  general survey  courses," emphasis theirs, merely 12 percent concerned themselves with philosophical and intellectual history, whereas 33 percent had racial themes. Those of us who like philosophy might call that a lost opportunity, but to be fair, race has been a more polarizing issue at most points in American history than whatever the eggheads were up to at the time.

Similarly, although the NAS is harrumphing that professors are teaching too much about gender, the report quietly acknowledges that only 11 percent of the supplemental readings include gender themes. In other words, women's history is getting exactly as much attention as American military history, which is also featured in 11 percent of the supplemental readings, but which the authors would apparently like to hear more about. Women are getting more attention than American diplomats (6 percent), but that hardly seems disproportionate, given that about 50 percent of Americans are women, and hardly any are diplomats—at least not at the NAS, apparently.

In fact, if Texas does insist that universities teach a more comprehensive version of history, that would potentially mean more readings and lectures about race, gender, and class, rather than fewer. Patrick himself seemed to say as much in the Facebook post. "If the protest groups get their way and keep things as they are many students may never learn about the African American or Latino cultures," he wrote. "Students who take history courses with a narrow and singular focus"—John Cheever's New England, say—"...would never learn about those cultures and how they played an important role in the history of our nation."

Setting aside the merits of the bill, Patrick will have his work cut out for him if he decides to forge ahead. Regardless of how his colleagues feel about the history curriculae, they probably feel that Patrick is putting forward a number of ideas about educational reform this session, because he is. Expanding the number of charter schools in the state is probably his top priority, and circumstances in the Lege are fairly auspicious on that front, but Texas is about halfway through its biennial session. Smaller bills, and the controversies that occasionally attend them, may prove to be a fruitless distraction. 

Tags: POLITICS

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