The right wing steps up its attack on the teaching of U.S. history


It appears that the right’s effort to suck the teaching of advanced U.S. history into the culture wars won’t be going away soon.

Last week, we reported on the conservatives’ attack on the instructional “framework” for advanced placement U.S. history courses published by the College Board.

A new salvo appeared Monday in National Review Online. It was written by Stanley Kurtz, a contributing editor at that publication and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank.


“This Framework will effectively force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a leftist perspective,” Kurtz writes. But as we showed earlier, that assertion is utter claptrap.

So far, the College Board is standing firm against this anti-intellectual assault. Let’s hope its spine remains stiff.

Kurtz’s goal evidently is to portray the AP History “framework” as the product of a grand conspiracy of “left-leaning” history professors to, essentially, emasculate their academic discipline by eliminating any sense of American “exceptionalism,” substituting an “internationalized” and “cosmopolitan” approach.

He traces this conspiracy all the way back to 2000, and a meeting of the historians’ cabal at a villa in Italy (!!!). There the plot was hatched.

“A conclave of historians with a left-wing foreign policy agenda, a third of them from foreign countries, seems an odd inspiration for the ostensibly non-partisan College Board’s redesign of the AP U.S. History Exam,” Kurtz writes. (He seems especially scandalized that one scholar submitting a paper to the meeting was from Cuba.)

In any case, he says, “The College Board formed a close alliance with this movement to internationalize the teaching of American history just prior to initiating its redesign of the AP U.S. History exam.”


This is how conspiracies are conjured out of thin air--by assuming relationships and giving those assumptions a sinister coloration.

One of Kurtz’s main targets is NYU historian Thomas Bender, who advocates an approach to U.S. history placing it in the context of historical trends in the rest of the world. Kurtz devotes about one-third of his article to attacking Bender, even though Bender wasn’t actually on the AP framework committee.

Kurtz further complains, “Bender wants early American history to be less about the Pilgrims, Plymouth Colony, and John Winthrop’s ‘City on a Hill’ speech, and more about the role of the plantation economy and the slave trade in the rise of an intrinsically exploitative international capitalism.”

So Bender wants the teaching of history to focus less on stereotypes and more about the flow of underlying historical trends. Something wrong with that?

Kurtz appears to be frankly appalled at the very notion that American history should be put in world context.

But as Ted Dickson, a member of the committee that drafted the AP framework, says, “It’s important that our students learn about the world. I don’t see how that’s un-American.”

Kurtz gives the game away in his discussion of “American exceptionalism,” which he defines as “the notion that America is freer and more democratic than any other nation, and for that reason, a model, vindicator, and at times the chief defender of ordered liberty and self-government in the world.” That notion, he says, is absent from the AP U.S. history framework.

An intelligent reader--indeed, an intelligent student--might well say: yes, if that’s the accepted definition of “American exceptionalism,” good riddance. That definition of exceptionalism has become an ideological shibboleth, wielded as a weapon against anyone who would dare to subject America’s influence in the real world, for good or ill, to close examination.

The assumption that everything about the U.S. is or should be viewed positively and uncritically by Americans themselves or by people outside its borders can lead only to a lobotomized view of America and the world. That may comfort the right wing, but it produces ignorance, not understanding.

And it has no place in an advanced survey course on U.S. history. What does have a place is a multi-dimensional examination of “exceptionalism” in all its guises, and Dickson says that’s fully consistent with the framework.

In fact, he says, contrary to the assertion of Kurtz and other critics that the framework forces AP history teachers into a constrained, politicized approach to their subject, it’s designed to allow them to “approach these concepts with more freedom” than before.

Parents and teachers should want their children and students to bring a critical perspective to America’s founding concepts and its founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They weren’t conceived and written in a vacuum, and you can’t appreciate them without participating in the ongoing debate about what they mean.

To people like Kurtz, any such intellectual quest is a threat. That should tell you something about where they’re coming from.

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