Charlotte Perry-Houts is a Senior History Major.
In last week’s issue of the Foghorn, Professor Anthony Fels wrote an opinion piece criticizing classes and departments at USF for being “left-wing” and “politicized.” Fels argues that this university in general has too many faculty who “politicize” their course material, this problem perpetuates itself when such faculty and administrators are entrusted with hiring, and that “politicized” material should be saved for extracurricular opportunities offered here at USF, rather than the classroom.
I would like to respond to these accusations from the perspective of a U.S. History student who has taken many of the classes that Fels takes issue with, as well as those that he considers “traditional.” The dichotomy set up between “traditional” and “politicized” scholarship in Fels’ article is problematic. I will argue that the scholarly methodology behind courses and programs that Fels criticizes are not more politicized, but more comprehensive than his “traditional” ones.
Fels attributes the source of politicization in USF’s academics to multiple problems. The first problem for him is USF’s “social justice” mission, a mission that he fears parents and trustees of the university do not fully understand. If any of the university’s stakeholders are ignorant of USF’s self-proclaimed social justice mission, I would be surprised: the mission is plastered all over the school’s website and brochures. The other problem that Fels cites is what he claims is a semi-corrupt hiring and firing system that maintains a homogeneous faculty, which shares the same left-wing views. The suggestion that USF’s “ideological commitment” permeates to the level of hiring and firing and even what is taught in the classroom is difficult to measure and thus difficult to substantiate. If there is a commitment to social justice in these areas, it seems to me that it is manifested in the form of comprehensive, critical scholarship.
Fels laments the fact that U.S. history majors can “get away” with taking the African-American History survey course instead of the “traditional” U.S. History survey. I will take on this example because two springs ago I took both of those classes at the same time. When students choose the African-American History course (and they do have a choice), are they losing the full narrative of U.S. history and having a political ideology forced upon them? My response is an unequivocal “no.”
While the entire narrative of U.S. history can be, and is taught through the lens of African-American history, the “traditional” class writes out important actors in U.S. history who help in the development of a fuller, more complex narrative. For example, where the “traditional” course talks about the rhetoric of the American Revolution, the African-American history course brings in the responses to that rhetoric by early American black slaves. Where the “traditional” class discusses westward expansion and wars fought against Native Americans, African-American history brings in accounts of Buffalo Soldiers. In this sense, the “traditional” history seems to maintain its apparent neutrality through omission, otherwise known as marginalization.
Further, African-American History, which can be taken by non-history majors to fulfill their history core requirement, introduces students to an important concept in the field of history: methodology. Because the class inevitably contrasts with the “traditional” narrative that most students have learned throughout grade school, students grasp the essential point of the study of history, which is that it is much more complicated than a retelling of events. By taking classes like these, students come to understand that history is never neutral.
Fels suggests that it is unfair to conservative students for faculty to “politicize” their classes through methodology that calls into question the “traditional” narrative. It seems to me that, for students who wish to take the blinders off of history and come to terms with its complexity (and the complexity of its methodology), it is unfair to refer to the regular U.S. History survey course as the “normal” or “traditional” course, and the ones that complicate its narrative as the “politicized” ones. Does historical methodology count as political activism that merits exclusion from the classroom? In general, the courses and programs criticized by Fels deal with aspects of reality that are excluded from most people’s education in our broader society.
USF’s courses and programs that challenge received narratives about history and society are a valuable asset. They reflect the fact that faculty here are free to take on what Fels refers to as the “traditional search for truth.” That search for truth involves calling into question perspectives on society that are most often repeated throughout it. That search for truth gets more complicated as more voices are brought onto the stage of academia and scholarship in many fields, as it should.