The burgeoning ranks of tea party “patriots” who have gotten themselves elected to Congress and state legislatures have identified yet another threat to the soul of America: Advanced Placement U.S. history guidelines.
Republican legislators in Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, Nebraska, North Carolina and Tennessee are raising an alarm about a new framework for teaching AP U.S. history to American high school students. They say it fails to instill patriotism and an appreciation for American exceptionalism and, instead, puts too much emphasis on race, gender and class. A resolution approved by the Republican National Committee last summer declared that the framework “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects while omitting or minimizing the positive.”
The College Board came up with the revised outline to guide teachers who are preparing students for the AP history test that will earn them college credits before they leave high school. According to the College Board, critics are misconstruing what the framework is meant to do. It is essentially an outline hitting main topic points that teachers can enhance in any way they wish.
But conservative legislators who are always energized by hints of left-wing subversion, whether real or imagined, choose to read the framework very differently -- if they read it at all, that is. It’s a safe bet that 99% of the riled-up lawmakers who want to run this AP history course out of their state’s classrooms have never even looked at the framework; they’ve just seen talking points or picked up their information from a Rush Limbaugh rant.
Well, I have actually taken the time to read through the framework and I can see why these folks are so upset. It’s not that the rundown of American history from 1491 to the present day is inaccurate. To the contrary, it is a comprehensive, factual account of the social and political development of this nation over five centuries. But it ain’t your grandparents version of the story and that is what the critics do not like.
Most of us were taught what was, essentially, a history of great men. We learned about Columbus, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant and Lee and got the idea everything of importance that happened was done by them. Those men are still in the mix, but the new history is also told from the viewpoint of common laborers, immigrants, slaves, Native Americans and women and that does, indeed, put a different slant on things.
Those who do not like the AP framework complain there is too much attention paid to slavery and race, even though slavery and the racist Jim Crow era that followed the Civil War pervaded and warped the politics of the nation and nearly destroyed the republic. Some object to mentioning the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, believing it undercuts the glorious narrative of American boys crossing two oceans to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. And they are not especially happy about the AP course telling students that progressives at the turn of the last century did some good things, such as protecting the environment, eliminating child labor and curbing the destructive greed of giant corporate monopolies.
The old history we grew up with told kids about Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War but neglected to mention the nasty guerrilla war that followed when the United States, after kicking out the Spanish colonialists, turned the Philippines into an American vassal state. The old history told about the Oregon Trail but never noted the fact that Oregon’s 1859 constitution barred black people from living in the state -- something that was not changed until 1926. For a long time, the old history clung to the myth of young George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. We never heard the true story of Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s slave who ran away to freedom when she heard the first first lady was preparing to give her away as a wedding gift.
I do not think Ona Judge gets a mention in the new AP framework either, but at least the updated history teaches that there is much more to the story of America than the achievements of famous white men. It is not just smart high school kids who could benefit from a deeper understanding of our exceptional history, all of us could -- simplistic, reactionary state legislators most of all.