Sunday, March 1, 2015

Guest Post By JMS

On the recent AP US History controversy. The author's name is John Shaw, a college history teacher from the western side of the United States. 


Since its 2014 release, there has been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the revised AP U.S. History "framework." At their  summer meeting in August, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution, branding the curriculum “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” Similar complaints and attempts to prevent its implementation at the state level have arisen in Texas, Georgia, Colorado (that generated significant student and parent pushback in Jefferson County), North and South Carolina.

I’m guessing you have heard about the latest AP U.S. History brouhaha (Rod Dreher provides a fair overview), this time in Oklahoma. Representative Dan Fisher proposed defunding AP U.S. History because it fails to teach “American exceptionalism.” But this complaint is a misreading of the AP history “framework,” and as in Colorado, students, parents and teachers are pushing back, at least because they earned a million dollars’ worth of college credits last year via AP history classes. This has led Fisher to shelve a committee-approved defunding bill for now. Too many detractors like Fisher mischaracterize the new AP approach to history. It is not a curriculum, it does not mandate any list of groups, individuals, dates, documents or historical details, and it does not “teach” any particular political position or interpretation of U.S. history. It is each AP history teacher’s responsibility to select the relevant historical artifacts that explore the key concepts and develop historical thinking skills.

But, relevant to American Creation, Mr. Fisher is a “pastor” and member of an organization called, the Black Robe Regiment, whose website states that, “although we are not affiliated with David Barton or the Wall Builders organization, David serves as an inspiration and Wall Builders is a great resource of historical knowledge.” They claim, “the church and God himself has been under assault, marginalized, and diminished by the progressives and secularists,” and attack the “false wall of separation of church and state” resulting from a “growing tide of special interest groups indoctrinating our youth at the exclusion of the Christian perspective.”

But the inclusion of more or alternate viewpoints does not necessarily exclude other perspectives, Christian or otherwise. Should claims about “a divinely inspired US Constitution” be accepted at face value? Any study of U.S. history that utilizes the “historical thinking” skills the AP U.S. history framework seeks to develop, will result in divergent conclusions, which strikes me as a very positive learning outcome. Mr. Fisher reminds me of some students who complain that there was no single “right” answer, but that is precisely the point. It does not mean that “everything is relative,” or that “history is just an unending argument. Historical reasoning does not lead to a simple True/False dichotomy, but prompts weighing claims and lining up arguments based on all of the available evidence (i.e., not “cherry-picking”). If conflicting interpretations result in creative tension, so much the better, or at least better than history shaped to fit an ideological agenda.

As noted by the American Historical Association, Historians and history teachers know that the honest, nonpartisan study of history will turn up episodes that are inspirational and episodes that are deeply troubling. Studying history challenges anyone’s beliefs, whatever their political commitments may be. This makes it even more important that history teachers know they are free to emphasize independent thinking, cooperative inquiry, evidence, and open discussion. The AP U.S. History Framework is a positive step in this direction for all teachers of history.”

I’m sure there is room for improvement in the new 142-page AP U.S. History “framework.” In fact they have created a U.S. History Curriculum Framework Public Comment Form. But all of the critics I’ve encountered (except Professor Joseph Kett) are guilty of exactly what AP History is trying to forestall: selective use of evidence to support pre-conceived notions and ignoring evidence that does not support their particular cause or partisan bias.

And, in case anyone wants to tar me with the broad brush of being a “liberal academic,” please note that I abhor Obama’s “Race to the Top” as much as Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.” They promote a “test and punish” agenda (of students and teachers) that is inimical to the type of education AP History strives for: to “draw out or unfold the powers of the mind.” The emphasis of history teaching should be inculcating habits of historical thinking so students become lifelong learners and engaged citizens.


Ray Soller said...

Here is an Atlanta Journal Constitution blog dealing with the subject.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And, in case anyone wants to tar me with the broad brush of being a “liberal academic,” please note that I abhor Obama’s “Race to the Top” as much as Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.” They promote a “test and punish” agenda (of students and teachers) that is inimical to the type of education AP History strives for

Criticizing President Obama from his left [along George W. Bush] is hardly absolution from being 'tarred' as a "liberal academic." In fact, its rather proof that one is.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The Monkey Trial, Ray? As a Mormon and a liberal, you should learn the truth. This is from PBS so you can trust it.

Don't trust the movie, "Inherit The Wind." It wasn't like that.

William Jennings Bryan was a liberal by the way. The best kind.

In 1921, when he was 61 years old, Bryan began a new campaign -- to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. Many wondered if Bryan had given up his progressive ideals. Had his religious faith turned him against science, education and free speech? Few understood his reasons for opposing evolution.

As a young man, Bryan had been open-minded about the origins of man. But over the years he became convinced that Darwin's theory was responsible for much that was wrong with the modern world. "The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate," Bryan said, "Evolution is the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak." He believed that the Bible countered this merciless law with "the law of love."

Bryan was progressive in politics and a conservative in religion. According to biographer Lawrence Levine, "Bryan always mixed religion and politics. He couldn't conceive of one without the other because religion to him was the basis of politics. Without religion there could be no desire to change in a positive way. Why should anyone want to do that?"

The eight-day Scopes trial took a toll on Bryan. He suffered from diabetes. The stifling heat of the courtroom depleted his energy. The national press depicted him in an unflattering light. Reporter H. L. Mencken came to Dayton expressly to "get Bryan." In daily reports to The Baltimore Sun Mencken mocked Bryan as an "old buzzard" and a "tinpot pope." "It is a tragedy indeed," he wrote, "to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon."

William Jennings Bryan in courtroomOn the seventh day of the trial, Bryan fell into a trap when the defense team led by Clarence Darrow called him to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. Attorney Phillip Johnson says "The idea of the defense lawyer calling the chief prosecutor as a witness is absurd. But Bryan thought it was an opportunity to have the debate -- to make his case." One of the nation's greatest public speakers took the stand to be interrogated by another rhetorical champion.

Snapping his suspenders, jabbing his finger at Bryan, Darrow peppered Bryan with questions: "When exactly was the earth created? How many days did it take? Where did Cain get his wife?" The judge tried to stop the grilling, but Bryan pounded his fist, refusing to step down: "I am simply trying to protect the word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States!"

Finally, the judge called a halt to the spectacle. The next day the jury pronounced John Scopes guilty. William Jennings Bryan had won the case, but history would not look kindly on his last crusade. The Scopes trial would cast a long shadow over his remarkable career.

Five days after the trial ended, Bryan died in his sleep in Dayton. His death triggered an outpouring of grief from the "common" Americans who felt they had lost their greatest champion. A special train carried him to his burial place in Arlington National Cemetery. Thousands of people lined the tracks. Historian Paul Boyer says, "Bryan's death represented the end of an era. This man who had loomed so large in the American political and cultural landscape for thirty years had now passed from the scene."

In 1930, in memory of William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist college began classes in Dayton, Tennessee. Bryan College now accepts students from all over the world.

Art Deco said...

Criticizing President Obama from his left [along George W. Bush] is hardly absolution from being 'tarred' as a "liberal academic." In fact, its rather proof that one is.

Maureen Downey is an education reporter. Something Timothy Noah said about other education reporters during his time on that beat may apply. Per Noah, he was astonished when he met other reporters that most identified with their subjects and subscribed whole-heartedly to their agenda ("no more interference from state legislatures, more federal money, abolish standardized tests"). Noah found many people in the teacher training guild to be snake-oil salesman, but other education reporters did not see them that way at all.

Academics are nothing if not protective of their prerogatives, and would really concede nothing to anyone who suggested that auditing them might uncover abuse of their position. She's their press agent.

JMS said...

Jon - thanks for the opportunity to dip my toe into the blogosphere.