Sunday, March 01, 2015
Guest Post By JMS
On the recent AP US History controversy. The author's name is John Shaw, a college history teacher from the western side of the United States.
Since its 2014 release, there has been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the revised AP U.S. History "framework." At their summer meeting in August, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution, branding the curriculum “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” Similar complaints and attempts to prevent its implementation at the state level have arisen in Texas, Georgia, Colorado (that generated significant student and parent pushback in Jefferson County), North and South Carolina.
I’m guessing you have heard about the latest AP U.S. History brouhaha (Rod Dreher provides a fair overview), this time in Oklahoma. Representative Dan Fisher proposed defunding AP U.S. History because it fails to teach “American exceptionalism.” But this complaint is a misreading of the AP history “framework,” and as in Colorado, students, parents and teachers are pushing back, at least because they earned a million dollars’ worth of college credits last year via AP history classes. This has led Fisher to shelve a committee-approved defunding bill for now. Too many detractors like Fisher mischaracterize the new AP approach to history. It is not a curriculum, it does not mandate any list of groups, individuals, dates, documents or historical details, and it does not “teach” any particular political position or interpretation of U.S. history. It is each AP history teacher’s responsibility to select the relevant historical artifacts that explore the key concepts and develop historical thinking skills.
But, relevant to American Creation, Mr. Fisher is a “pastor” and member of an organization called, the Black Robe Regiment, whose website states that, “although we are not affiliated with David Barton or the Wall Builders organization, David serves as an inspiration and Wall Builders is a great resource of historical knowledge.” They claim, “the church and God himself has been under assault, marginalized, and diminished by the progressives and secularists,” and attack the “false wall of separation of church and state” resulting from a “growing tide of special interest groups indoctrinating our youth at the exclusion of the Christian perspective.”
But the inclusion of more or alternate viewpoints does not necessarily exclude other perspectives, Christian or otherwise. Should claims about “a divinely inspired US Constitution” be accepted at face value? Any study of U.S. history that utilizes the “historical thinking” skills the AP U.S. history framework seeks to develop, will result in divergent conclusions, which strikes me as a very positive learning outcome. Mr. Fisher reminds me of some students who complain that there was no single “right” answer, but that is precisely the point. It does not mean that “everything is relative,” or that “history is just an unending argument. Historical reasoning does not lead to a simple True/False dichotomy, but prompts weighing claims and lining up arguments based on all of the available evidence (i.e., not “cherry-picking”). If conflicting interpretations result in creative tension, so much the better, or at least better than history shaped to fit an ideological agenda.
As noted by the American Historical Association, “Historians and history teachers know that the honest, nonpartisan study of history will turn up episodes that are inspirational and episodes that are deeply troubling. Studying history challenges anyone’s beliefs, whatever their political commitments may be. This makes it even more important that history teachers know they are free to emphasize independent thinking, cooperative inquiry, evidence, and open discussion. The AP U.S. History Framework is a positive step in this direction for all teachers of history.”
I’m sure there is room for improvement in the new 142-page AP U.S. History “framework.” In fact they have created a U.S. History Curriculum Framework Public Comment Form. But all of the critics I’ve encountered (except Professor Joseph Kett) are guilty of exactly what AP History is trying to forestall: selective use of evidence to support pre-conceived notions and ignoring evidence that does not support their particular cause or partisan bias.
And, in case anyone wants to tar me with the broad brush of being a “liberal academic,” please note that I abhor Obama’s “Race to the Top” as much as Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.” They promote a “test and punish” agenda (of students and teachers) that is inimical to the type of education AP History strives for: to “draw out or unfold the powers of the mind.” The emphasis of history teaching should be inculcating habits of historical thinking so students become lifelong learners and engaged citizens.