High school history teachers who prep America’s best and brightest in their AP classes had better go easy on any tarnishing aspects of this country’s sacred story. That’s the main takeaway from a remarkably successful campaign by the Right to roll back last year’s College Board-developed framework for the teaching of United States history. The Board owns and controls the SAT, so what it proposes by way of the teaching curriculum obviously matters.
Fox News has trumpeted this as a victory for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. And really, who can blame them? It’s a big win for their side in the battle of ideas, despite claims by the College Board and by some cowed centrist historians to the effect that the new framework actually represents a more “balanced” approach.
Among the Right-demanded changes are the soft-pedaling of Southern support for slavery and a more benign understanding of Manifest Destiny:
- Last year’s framework stated, accurately, that prior to the Civil War, white southerners “asserted their regional identity through pride in the institution of slavery, insisting that the federal government should defend that institution.” The 2015 version changes this to: “Antislavery efforts increased in the North, while in the South, although the majority of Southerners owned no slaves, most leaders argued that slavery was a part of the Southern way of life.”
- In 2014, Manifest Destiny was described as primarily a belief in “white racial superiority,” whereas now the framework adds that the popular commitment to Manifest Destiny also included a belief in America as the land of “economic opportunities and religious refuge.” The new framework, revised under pressure, also cites Native American “resistance” as a reason why the natives had to be suppressed (i.e., exterminated) during the westward march of Mr. Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty.
Critics of the 2014 framework reserved their strongest attacks for the College Board’s failure to give sufficient respectful attention to the concept of American exceptionalism. In June of this year, a group of neoconservative and not-particularly-distinguished scholars (including veteran culture warriors like Lynne Cheney and Robert George), whined in an open letter that if the 2014 guidelines were to stand:
No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals. The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that selfconsciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective.
De-center American history? Heaven forfend! Subordinate our glorious saga to a “global and social-scientific perspective”? Never!
National Review’s Stanley Kurtz went further, accusing the College Board of effectively sapping national morale by “de-nationalizing” the teaching of United States history, singling out NYU’s Thomas Bender as the “internationalist” villain of the plot.
It is certainly true that the people who created last year’s framework made some blunders that gave ammunition to the critics. Eschewing the “great man” theory of history, they neglected to name important figures like Benjamin Franklin and even Martin Luther King, Jr. And it was clearly ill-judged of them to mention, in the context of World War II, the internment camps for Japanese-Americans and the use of the atomic bomb on Japanese cities while failing to cite the provocation of Pearl Harbor.
But their overall effort to problematize U.S. history and leave behind the traditional triumphalist narrative was clearly a positive step forward. That’s what makes it so very depressing to see that effort get beaten down.
Now we will be back to a more conventional telling of the American story that represents white America not as a nation among nations but as the one “indispensable” nation. Our most able college-bound youth will be taught a specious version of history that construes American exceptionalism to mean that the United States is not just different from other nations (which is true) but that it’s morally better than all others (most definitely not true).
This crypto-Christian thrust in the attacks on the last year’s proposed framework should not be ignored, even though mainstream media coverage of the affair has thus far managed to do just that. It’s hardly a coincidence that conservative Christian “scholars,” joined by leaders of the Christian Right, formed the vanguard of the framework’s critics.
In short, this is no mere internecine academic squabble. And I fear that the Right’s pushback will have real-world consequences. Teachers who are discouraged from teaching the decisive role played by white supremacy in U.S. history will be sending the white students off to college still ignorant of the central reality played by white racism (“Southern way of life,” indeed) and thus more likely to recapitulate the callousness of their forebears, while the students of color will be deprived of an urgent healing truth.
One must also wonder whether the Right’s fierce determination to perpetuate the essentially religious belief in American exceptionalism has anything to do with concealing from the losers in a winner-take-all economy the grim reality of their situation. To me it’s plausible that, just as it was useful during America’s rise to discern God’s providential hand guiding the violent conquest of a vast continent, so now during a time of American decline it may likewise be quite useful to keep Americans thinking that God still loves us best despite the daily evidence of falling fortunes.
I should be clear that I think the admirable aspects of the white American story should certainly be taught. In my youth I taught an AP class in American literature in relation to 19th century American history. Were I teaching that same class today, I would have no difficulty inviting my students to think of the constitutional system as a remarkable achievement.
Likewise for the recurrent reform impulse in American life. I would want my students to be aware of the repeated ways in which 19th century Americans expressed a holy impatience with unholy social arrangements: chattel slavery, the subjugation of women, the gross exploitation of wage laborers, etc.
But I would also feel a need to teach the flip side in each case: the pernicious Three-Fifths Clause in the Constitution, the blinkered Puritan-derived self-righteousness within these same social reform movements, and the hold-your-nose anti-immigrant bias that muted white middle-class reformers’ support for labor reform.
I certainly would never ask my students to consider that the rise and globe-bestriding power of the United States might be related to moral superiority. In fact, I would feel compelled to point out to them how a putrid rising tide of white terrorism at the end of the long 19th century (1890-1914) helped to shape the era’s concomitant White Fleet imperialism. I would want my students to be able to see why the presidents and white thought leaders of that time were able to regard Cubans and Hawaiians and Filipinos as racial inferiors (“niggers” was their all-purpose word) to be forcibly put down in the interest of advancing white civilization.
I write this having just finished Sven Beckert’s monumental Empire of Cotton, which emphasizes the central significance of what Beckert calls ”war capitalism”—the regime of militarized extermination, expropriation, and enslavement—in fueling the rapid rise of American economic power during the crucial formative decades between 1780 and 1860.
Beckert’s splendid book won the coveted Bancroft Prize, the highest award in American historiography, but he is far from alone in exploring the role of white supremacist violence in the dazzling ascent of the American colossus. Among recent works of distinction in this area are Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams. No one who reads any of these serious historical works can possibly still cling to the myth of Christian America’s original innocence.
Lynne Cheney and her pals will never read these books and don’t want to hear about any of this. They don’t give two hoots about our actual history. What they want is reverence. They want fealty to the myth of original innocence. They want a sanctified U.S. history, running from John Winthrop’s celebrated 1630 discourse upon the deck of the good ship Arabella, all the way up to the noble deeds of an actor-turned-president (their favorite president, truth be told) who enjoyed using Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” image (there is no “shining” in the original) while completely forgetting Winthrop’s caution that God will only bless a righteous (i.e., egalitarian and humble) commonwealth.
We should have learned a long time ago that people claiming to be God’s elect are invariably dangerous people. Too bad the College Board has been forced to turn tail and propagate the opposite thesis.