Los Angeles — "I cannot conceive of a first-rate history department without a medievalist -- but how many?" With this question, Hans Rogger, a history professor at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), answered my question about what makes a "balanced" history department.
Professor Rogger also explained that location would probably affect the "balance" in any given history department. He cited UCLA's promixity to Asia and the presence of Japanese-Americans in the area as one reason his history department has two Japanese historians.
This geographical answer was confirmed across the United States at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., where there are no Japanese historians and where only three Asian-history courses are offered to undergraduates, all taught by the same professor.
On the other hand, William and Mary offers such courses as "England Under the Tudors and Stewarts," "Colonial and Revolutionary Virginia," and "The Negro in the United States Since 1861." These three courses are taught by different professors.
Dr. Rogger was most uncomfortable with my questions about how an institution, or a single department, deals with ideologically biased instructors. As He explained, "When I came here to do Russian history, no one asked or knew what my ideological biases were."
But when I asked if he hadn't written in scholarly journals, wasn't well known as a scholar by other history professors, and didn't have a history of study under certain scholars, he was quick to say that all that was true, and that yes possibly his ideological "base" (he preferred base to bias) might be known.
So I pressed on as to how a department could control (my word) a teaching staff. His answer, the same one I received at every institution I visited, was the declaration that no one (said in capital letters) looks over another's shoulder. Hans Rogger explained: "A good history department is a collective effort -- totally democratic."
Then, I persisted, what is the incentive for instructors to balance what it is they present and to be sure that they are as objective as possible?
The burden, Professor Rogger indicated, is first on the scholar and second on the students. It is they who are the consumers and it is they who must signal -- through not signing up with certain professors -- that something serious is lacking with that individual's scholarship.
Well, then, proving to be thoroughly stubborn, I asked what happens when a history department the size of UCLA's (65) has a vacancy to fill?
Again, I was told that what the department seeks is the best possible scholar to balance the course offerings. And, again, the implication is that biased, unbalanced teaching is the antithesis of good scholarship.
Dr. Rogger, to emphasize how little concern he felt should be given to political bias, explained that hundreds of students took one or two history courses as electives from other disciplines, such as engineering, and that he (and he was sure it was the same with his colleagues) had no idea what political bias the students had when they started a given course and no interest in what political bias they had when they completed the course.
I wasn't able to attend a history class at UCLA, but I did sit in on a US government course at William and Mary, where the discussion focused on the Supreme Court and a decision first made in 1942 and reversed in 1962.
Dr. Rogger would have approved of the teacher. He made his students look at the court's makeup and its decisions from several historical angles as well as from the apparent ideological differences among the justices.
The William and Mary students had done their homework, and a few were prepared to have a "bias." But no bias was provided or allowed by the alert professor; only the history of the events in their perspective.