Universities Criticized For Over-Emphasizing Race, Gender and Class Issues In History


A version of this story ran in the March 2013 issue.

A recent headline-grabbing report criticizing Texas public universities for imbalanced teaching of American history—by overly emphasizing issues of race, gender and class—should be monitored by anyone who cares about the righteous mission of journalism in a state where true equality remains achingly elusive.

In the report titled “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?” The University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M University are cited as schools where 50 percent or more of history professors are “high assigners” of articles and books on race, gender and class.

It was the latest salvo in a seemingly unrelenting assault on education in Texas—an assault that could easily be turned toward another inviting target: statewide journalism departments educating thousands of future reporters and editors.

The impact of this new manifesto remains to be seen, but departmental debates are already popping up in its wake. At a minimum, the report has opened the window a bit wider for hard-line reactionary intrusions on and off campus.

Missing from most mainstream news of the report is the fact that it was funded, in part, by a member of the Texas media: Wick Allison, who created D Magazine in Dallas and also publishes The American Conservative (founded by Pat Buchanan, among others).

The report was written by the National Association of Scholars and unleashed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Austin-based free-market think-tank chaired by Wendy Lee Gramm, former Sen. Phil Gramm’s wife, who once served on an audit committee at Enron.

TPPF was founded 24 years ago by San Antonio businessman James Leininger, the wealthy Christian conservative who has consistently been one of Gov. Rick Perry’s most fervent financial backers.

Here is one line toward the end of the almost 50-page report, meant as an indictment of the way some Texas public university professors teach: “They . . . increasingly think of themselves as responsible for reforming American society and curing it of prejudice and bigotry.”

That’s also, of course, one definition of a journalist—at least as Ida Tarbell, I.F. Stone, Molly Ivins and many others would define the job. It could be argued it is also the definition of a good citizen.

If the old saw is true, and journalism is the first draft of history, what’s to prevent journalism programs from finding themselves in the same crosshairs currently trained on history programs? What’s keeping TPPF and similar groups from deciding that journalism programs in Texas’ public universities also need debunking and derailment?

What does such agenda-motivated meddling portend for the “Race, Gender and Media” class offered at the University of North Texas—or any class that attunes young journalists to under-reported issues of race, injustice, poverty, political extremism and women’s rights?

Why not insist that all state-funded journalism departments ignore the sobering facts of Texas’ often-cruel history—never mind its present?

Why not urge students not to tell the stories linking the historical padrone system to modern poverty in the Rio Grande Valley, and not to tell the stories bridging historical freedmen’s towns to the poverty of 21st-century South Dallas?

I asked two colleagues—thoughtful educator/journalists teaching young Texans how to report responsibly in a democratic society—what they think about the report’s conclusions.

“The heart and soul of good journalism is a sustained challenge to illegitimate authority. To not focus on race, gender and class would be irresponsible,” says professor Robert Jensen at UT-Austin.

“Since the 1960s, we have made substantial progress toward building a society that is a more inclusive society, one where people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientations, are respected,” says professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, also at UT-Austin. “For us as journalists, it’s been an exciting development—finding underreported stories and holding up a mirror to our communities.

“We can’t understand our country, our state and our communities if we leave out those underrepresented groups. As journalists who seek to understand our world in a profound way, we absolutely need that research and those classes.”