A Victory for Conservatives in Revised AP History Curriculum

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. ​T​hat’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).

Th​is 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 Cottonwhich 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 t​o 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.

20 Comments

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    It would be hard to come to agreement here, so the next best thing might be for us to continue our progressive/conservative split. We could have separate progressive and conservative colleges with progressive and conservative entrance exams, and different high schools. This will be easier than you might at first think because we are already almost there with our system of conservative and progressive states.

  • bramptonbryan@yahoo.com' DavidHarley says:

    A good teacher will not seek to suppress differing opinions. He or she will press students to locate documents that support their case, and to give due weight to documents that do not.

    It doesn’t really matter if students arrive with one set of views and leave unchanged, as long as they have honestly tested their opinions against the sources and recognized that there are other positions which are not incoherent.

    In the sciences too, students have to learn that current theories are simply the best we have so far, and that even the most elegant ones are only contingent. They too need to be tested against the latest data.

    Of course, this rarely happens. Academics are often deceived into thinking that their own beliefs are graven on tablets of stone,

  • awerling@gmail.com' andrew123456789 says:

    As I debate, in mid-life, whether or not to follow my original dream, finally, of being a teacher (specifically in history), stories like this remind me of one of the big reasons I decided against it. My integrity is too strong to teach lies and distortions to students.

  • charrichp@gmail.com' Richard Pierard says:

    As one who taught history at the college level for 42 years (1964-2006), I am appalled, and I wonder where this big name historians at the more prestigious institutions that the ones where I taught were when this tragedy of ideological rewriting of American history occurred, apparently unchallenged?

  • jrpancel@efn.org' skinnercitycyclist says:

    Well, I teach learning center (special education) US History, not AP, so is it OK if I just teach actual history?

  • jrpancel@efn.org' skinnercitycyclist says:

    Also, job market for social studies teachers worse than any other in HS education, as I have seen it.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Try it and then let us know if you get fired.

  • carter.25@aol.com' Linda says:

    Having been educated in the 50s and 60s, I was fed a lot of mythology, too. Reading the work of serious historians has corrected many of my misconceptions. The Great Courses has a great course called “Skeptic’s Guide to American History.” Which takes an in depth analysis of the mythology of American History. It is great to teach our children about the brave and good things that happened in our history. It is not good to teach them old myths handed down from my great-grandmother. To Jim Reed, especially, it’s not about conservative vs. progressive. It’s about truth vs. fiction.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Having attended Sunday School in the 50s and 60s, it was crushing to see the rise of the moral majority in the 80s. If you don’t see the war as between conservatives and progressives, you will never see the truth.

  • cgoslingpbc@aol.com' cgosling says:

    As is usually the case, liberal voices are lazily silent while conservatives and evangelicals are active. Wake up liberals and stop the new historical nonsense that is being foisted upon public school kids.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Those fundamentalists are really crazy. I don’t think we could ever be incited to push agendas as strongly as they do. On the other hand, maybe they sense their end is near, and that might be why they are now so hyperactive.

  • “Crypto-Christian” in the body of the article is correct. “Conservative” in the headline is not.

    These people are reactionaries. They want to be Imagineers, to use the Disney term, constructing inventive, imaginative pasts for people to live in in their minds, even as their real time bodies put up with a present that is incompatible with that fictitious provenance.

    That was a run-on sentence. Enjoy it. In another incarnation I am the Internet’s Granny Grammar. Granny is a conservative, and she knows what a conservative is.

    These backward dolts aren’t and don’t.

    -dlj.

  • cgoslingpbc@aol.com' cgosling says:

    Jim – It’s true that Christianity is on the down slope but evangelical Christianity is stable in numbers. As science education pervades the population I expect religious numbers will diminish.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    As they weaken, will they eventually suffer a collapse? I think the collapse will start with the politics. The evangelicals would just continue the current relationship, but the fiscal conservatives are more pragmatic. Once they see the Christian voting block is a dead end, they will drop it and head another direction. Losing their political flank leaves the Christians exposed, and it is unpredictable what will happen,other than we can be sure Jesus is not the answer.

  • thinkingcriminal@gmail.com' Camera Obscura says:

    “Th​is crypto-Christian ​thrust in the attacks on the ​last year’s proposed framework ​should not be ignored”

    The pseudo-Christian, or rather, Antichristian thruts of the effort are best shown in the goals and motivations of those who are behind it. It would be impossible to intuit the teachings of Jesus or his earliest followers from those actions or from what they want to promote as civic virtue, in almost every case those are the absolute opposite of what Jesus and the other Jewish prophets taught, in almost every case they have everything more to do with European paganism, Mammonism and vulgar materialism than they do with anything Jesus taught.

  • nightgaunt@graffiti.net' nightgaunt says:

    Oh it is Christian, maybe not yours, but still. Unless you want to go the “True Scotsman” fallacy.
    As for vulgar materialism, without it you would be a vulgar corpse.

  • nightgaunt@graffiti.net' nightgaunt says:

    They want to believe they are revolutionaries and that they will be “taking us back to their version of the past” that never was.

  • nightgaunt@graffiti.net' nightgaunt says:

    You mean real history. With all the good and bad parts?

  • thinkingcriminal@gmail.com' Camera Obscura says:

    I think there needs to be one of those instantly declared internet laws that the first person who says “True Scotsman” fails.

    Jesus set the criteria for judging if someone is a genuine follower of his or not, if they followed his teachings, they were a genuine follower of him. [Matthew 7:21, for example] Anyone who violates those teachings, who advocates policies in opposition to those policies is lying about being his follower. The difference between being an authentic follower of Jesus and someone who is just giving it lip service is definitively set by the ultimate authority in that matter. I know atheists just hate that fact but that is a fact. I think Christians have to take that a lot more seriously even though it will lead to arguments among nominal Christians.

    You clearly don’t understand what I meant by “vulgar materialism,” as in “everything I can get my mitts on is mine, mine, mine!”

    Atheist materialism means we’re all vulgar corpses, even while those corpses are animated, there being no real difference between one lump of molecules and another. It has a number of other consequences, such as that one ideology is the equivalent of any other, scientistic atheism, under its own framing, is the equivalent of Pentecostalist snake-handling or being an expert in every Star Trek episode. That’s true because materialism cannot contain any transcendent categories of truth or value. Atheists hate that too but that’s their fault, not mine.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The most important lesson will be about how we got involved in American Exceptionalism. But before we can teach how that happened, first we will have to figure it out.

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