Battles over history

I don’t need to close my eyes to love America.

Then again, I’m not a high school student and I never took an Advanced Placement course in American History (APUSH).  But I like the “education without limitation” sign above, from a student protest last year in Littleton, Colorado.  The students were opposed to a school board proposal to focus their education on promoting patriotism.  It’s yet another event that makes me proud to be American.

Let me confess an extreme professional prejudice: I think all Americans should learn as much as they possibly can about our history and governance (controversial?); high school is a good place for some of this education to happen (perhaps that’s more controversial…).  I’m not quite so enamored with the AP concept, but if it provides another chance to learn more, well, that’s all to the good.  Yet APUSH is emerging as a prime target for conservative activism in more than a few states; the battle’s gone furthest in Oklahoma, where a legislative committee has passed a bill identifying APUSH as an emergency threatening public peace and welfare, and proposed defunding it altogether.  (Summaries of the conflict can be found in Vox and Inside Higher Education.)

What’s this all about?  Some of it is about a reconfigured course, but more of it, I’d suggest, is about conservative activists prospecting for new issues to use in mobilizing their supporters.

On the course: AP courses are supposed to cover the same material as introductory courses in college, and some colleges and universities even provide credit to students who perform well on the College Board’s exam.  Students flock to these courses to demonstrate to colleges that they are ambitious and competent and pad their grade point averages feed their intellectual curiosity and suck up as much knowledge as possible.

Given the explicit rationale for the AP, the College Board has to pay attention to what’s going on in courses at colleges and universities, and periodically revise the curriculum and the all-important exam.  About a decade ago, the Board commenced a reevaluation and reconfiguration of APUSH, assembling a team of high school history teachers and professional historians, and publishing a new framework.  You can read it here.  (Good luck; I’d be surprised if more than a few of the partisans in the debate have; many prominent opponents have publicly admitted that they have not.)

At once, this seems like basically the right group of people to think about structuring this elective course that hits a relatively small portion of America’s high school students.  (Vox reports that about 300,000 students, 10 percent of graduating seniors, take the APUSH exam.)  I’d hope that the College Board would have working mathematicians responsible for the AP exams in Calculus and working scientists involved in configuring the AP courses in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

The new framework explicitly emphasizes skills (e.g., using evidence to craft arguments) and concepts (e.g., “politics and power”; “ideas, beliefs, and culture”) rather than specific documents or figures, affording teachers some flexibility in assembling the specific issues and documents in their classes.  It’s way less about memorizing key dates and facts, and way more like a college course should be.  Remember, the students taking this class have already taken years of social studies and presumably learned something about the Founding, the Civil War, and the great presidents.

But the new APUSH drew immediate opposition from the political right.  The Republican National Committee approved a resolution criticizing the curriculum as partial and distorted, and calling for a Congressional investigation into the College Board. Echoing critics of education like Socrates’s accusers, they worried about open dialogue leading to the corruption of the youth.  Local activists took the cue, if not the AP test.

A new school superintendent in Jefferson County, Colorado proposed forgetting about the test, college admissions, and the AP altogether, in favor of revamping the history curriculum to emphasize patriotism–rather than civil unrest.  Amazingly, the students there got the message the school board hoped to avoid, and walked out in protest, learning on the street corners what their elders wanted to keep from them in the classroom. (Lesson: students don’t always learn just what they’re taught in the classroom anyway.)

State-level politicians, looking for issues to demonstrate their commitments, jumped on the APUSH, making outraged speeches to demonstrate their patriotism and introducing legislation.  Win or lose on the floor of the state house, they now have issues and records to use in raising money and motivating voters.  As central as APUSH is to the lives of many over-stressed teenagers, the course is quite distant from most people’s lives.  It’s paradoxically easier to generate outrage than curiosity at the grassroots.  And the new ostensibly less patriotic more scientific and scholarly APUSH is a great baton to use in bashing the academic and cultural elite.  Moreover, APUSH comes when socially conservative issues have been losing viable issues: same sex marriage, for example, is spreading, and savvy Republicans are treating it as a lost cause; Americans still oppose Obamacare, but appreciate subsidies to increase access to health insurance, etc.

Whether opposition to APUSH has political legs remains to be seen.  Although Ben Carson has picked up the attack, few other nationally visible Republicans have.  Striking at the aspirations of the most accomplished high school students in the United States may be more hassle than it’s worth.  The point: politicians are constantly prospecting for issues on which they can distinguish themselves while inspiring supporters.

As to patriotism and education: isn’t it always better to know more of the story?  Doesn’t knowing that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and posthumously had them sold to pay his debts make the language of the Declaration of Independence seem all the more remarkable?  Doesn’t knowing about Andrew Johnson’s failed presidency and impeachment provide the best possible contrast to Lincoln’s second inaugural address?  Shouldn’t students learn that Martin Luther King’s soaring rhetoric provoked FBI surveillance?  After all, we’d like this talented tenth of high school students to become engaged citizens.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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1 Response to Battles over history

  1. Pingback: How student activists win: Update on APUSH in Colorado | Politics Outdoors

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