Friday, March 22, 2013
Better College History Courses | Casey's Last Word
Some black and Hispanic groups and writers are outraged at a bill sponsored by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione of the Fort Worth area and Houston Sen. Dan Patrick, powerful chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
The bill would specify that at state colleges and universities, only courses “providing a comprehensive survey” of U.S. or Texas history would qualify to meet requirements that students take two history courses.
The groups are concerned that the bill is an effort to marginalize courses in Mexican American and African American history.
San Antonio Express-News columnist Elaine Ayala argued that the bill amounts to “an attack against ethnic studies, including Mexican American Studies, African American Studies and other programs developed in the last half-century to fill in the blank spaces left by Eurocentric scholarship.”
She may be right. But I oppose the bill on other grounds. I regard it as an attack on the study of history itself.
Here’s why: As anyone who has survived middle school and high school can tell you, any “comprehensive” history course by its very nature is designed to ensure that the student will conclude that history is the dullest subject this side of English grammar.
These courses are not without content. Students are given the broad outlines of many important events. They are provided with a surface treatment of some key leaders. They are taught dates.
But any serious historian will call the notion of a “comprehensive history course” what it is: an oxymoron. Anyone who tries to tell the story of America, or even of Texas, in three hours a week for 15 or 16 weeks can only scratch the surface.
And in the hands of any but the most brilliant of teachers, that dull scratch will most certainly cure any itch a student has for history.
Consider this: Author Robert Caro has been working on a comprehensive account of the life of one man – Lyndon Johnson – for more than 35 years. He has published four volumes totaling more than 3,000 pages. He’s working on the fifth.
But Caro explained why it takes so long in an interview with novelist Kurt Vonnegut:
"I was never interested in writing biography just to show the life of a great man," said Caro. He wanted, he said, "to use biography as a means of illuminating the times and the great forces that shape the times – particularly political power."
Caro understands that history is best learned – and best told – in parts. To show how things really were and how things really worked can’t be done in a “comprehensive survey.”
What would best serve the non-science majors targeted by Patrick’s bill is not another survey course that at best would be a souped up version of the courses they took in middle and high school.
What college students need are courses that, like Caro’s books, tell history close up and in color. History that presents power players as they really were, with graphic details of their victories and failures, their skills and their blunders. All within the context of the time and the great forces that shaped the time.
The necessarily shallow “comprehensive” survey courses may give the students a few facts they hadn’t already learned or no longer remembered, and maybe some modestly deeper understanding of what shaped America or Texas.
But what the smaller but richer bites can give students is much more precious. It can give them a taste to keep reading history. Their understanding of America or Texas won’t ever be comprehensive, but it will be much deeper than what Patrick and Capriglione have in mind.