Foucault, politics and history: An examination into memory and the problem of bias in the teaching of history

By Sara Butler

Simply put, Oxford Dictionary defines history as “the study of past events.” Many of us at the University of San Diego have taken a history class in college, but how many of us recognize the hidden biases within the course?

Some of us may assume that a history course will provide an objective retelling of the past. However, while the idealistic concept of history is based on accurate facts, history is almost always clouded with obvious bias.

Michel Foucault, a French philosopher and social theorist, explores the idea of bias within history. According to Dina Franco Felluga, Ph.D. and professor at Purdue University, Michel Foucault’s approach differs from tradition.

“[Foucault] rejects the traditional historian’s tendency to read straightforward narratives of progress in the historical record,” Felluga writes.

Foucault infers that history is composed of many different perspectives that influence the retelling of the past. The problem of history is not the apparent bias, but the way that bias in history is handled.

One common bias apparent in history involves differences in political ideology. The exposure of the Texas controversy back in 2010 has created some debate about this bias. According to James C. McKinley in The New York Times, the Texas Board of Education fought to approve a change in curriculum that “put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks.”
The conservative board’s leader, Don McLeroy, Ph.D., explains otherwise.

“We are adding balance… History has already been skewed,” McLeroy said. “Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

As a Catholic university, does this apply to USD? If religious stereotypes may assume Catholics hold conservative beliefs, while educational stereotypes often paint universities as liberal institutions, it is interesting to see how USD fits into the mix. Which direction does our academia lean?

An anonymous male student source revealed what he believed to be a bias in his experience at USD.

“In my current American Politics class I have seen more of a liberal appearance within each class,” he said. “My professor expresses his views onto us students and gives only his political side. I see no other viewpoint which I think is not very effective in my lessons.”

However, some USD students do not detect a conservative or liberal bias in their courses. Neither Joseph Mejia nor Austin Lastinger noticed a bias in any of their classes.

An intended history major shared their thoughts on a lack of bias as well.

“I have taken an ancient history class at USD, and I have not seen any bias, conservative or liberal. The class dives into the lives of the ancient people and explores the types of day-to-day routines they had, laws they lived by, and government systems that rule over them. This class strictly looks at the evidence existing from ancient times, leaving no room for bias.”

After interviewing many students on campus, our academia seems to lean both ways.

While Kayla Meijer and AJ Simmons both feel liberal approaches in their Ancient World History and Criminology courses, Charisa Takahashi notices a conservative push in her CSI: City and Community class. Almost always, the bias depends on the course material and the professor (the story and the storyteller).

While the media portrays the Texas controversy as an issue of political ideology, underlying problems of ethnicity also start to surface.

Within the new curriculum, the conservative members on the board attempt to exclude minority historic leaders suggested by the Hispanic board members.

For instance, PBS writes that the Texas board removed Oscar Romero, an assassinated bishop from El Salvador, from a list of human rights activists due to his alleged lack of popularity.

Mary Helen Berlanga, a Latina board member, expressed her frustration with the board, arguing that the board wanted to make certain history invisible.

“They can’t just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist… They are rewriting history, not only of Texas, but of the United States and the world,” Berlanga said.

The construction of whiteness is prevalent in American society and this dominance must be recognized within the classroom. Since white males hold the majority of power in this country, white privilege often grants this group the right to write the story.

Every historical account is influenced by the writer’s perspective of how he interpreted that event. Since society holds the belief that the winners get to name the war, society often only learns the victor’s narrative.

Often times, histories get silenced or marginalized, which dictates how the past is remembered. The board’s conservative bias will affect the way Texan students learn about these past histories.
As Michel Foucault points out, history isn’t just the past.

“[It is] several pasts, several forms of connexion, several hierarchies of importance, and several networks of determination…” Foucault writes.

By only hearing one side, thousands of narratives go unheard, and the majority of these unheard narratives are those of minority groups.

To combat this bias in universities, courses such as Ethnic Studies have emerged to supplement the traditional history classes.

The Ethnic Studies department at USD offers a wide array of classes that discuss and debate the histories of minority persons and groups.

While the fact that these classes exist may seem comforting, the reality that there was a need for them in the first place is a bit unsettling. Ethnic Studies courses were added to expose and educate students about the racial bias within history.

While this department seems to be a solution to this possible white bias in the university’s history department, it is only a temporary fix.

Traditional history courses rely on a conservative bias, but USD is beginning to defy that tradition. USD is moving away from its past conservative reputation and embracing liberal standpoints.
This liberal viewpoint is something that stems directly from professors. Many of their workbooks or readers composed of diverse articles are replacing older and standard textbooks.

However, this change in bias is rooted in the political ideology of a professor as an attempt to force their agenda upon their students.

Rather, the liberal push simply exists to expose the problems with the traditional idea of history, which commonly only tells one side of the story. The liberal bias informs students on other hidden narratives and transcripts lying beneath the surface.

In my Ethnic Studies class, I have been exposed to historical figures such as Bill Moore, Ryan Lazo, and Miles Cary. All three of these unheard heroes are usually hidden from a traditional history course with a conservative bias.

However, by embracing a liberal bias, the stories of these characters can be heard by malleable minds of USD students. The new liberal emphasis does not compromise the previously established history, but enhances it by offering an insightful secondary narrative.

Oxford Dictionary was correct in their claim that history is “the study of past events”. However, a particular bias usually influences what these past events include and how the history is ultimately conveyed.

From Texas’ conservative curriculum to the Ethnic Studies departments at USD, history has been shown to demonstrate a particular bias that serves one group over another.
While there may never be a cure for prevalent bias in history, perhaps we can work to recognize these interests and learn to combat those forces.