Typically, historians and educators have the last say when it comes to analyzing and evaluating specific time periods throughout history. These are the subject matter experts we’ve come to rely on to preserve and disseminate history’s true shades: the good with the bad, the objective truths of what happened alongside the more fanciful notions of what might have been.
And that’s what makes the current attack on historical accuracy so galling: it’s cutting historians and educators out of the equation entirely, giving the power of historical stewardship over to bureaucrats and politicians instead.
The recent movement to eliminate or rewrite certain mentions of racial strife from AP History curriculum has been particularly popular among American conservatives. Similar to the movement that sought to eradicate the teaching of evolution in public schools, these partisans utilize methods ranging from legislation to outright removal (tantamount to book burning) in order to achieve their goal of influencing how curriculum guidelines are authored.
At the center of the controversy is the College Board: a not-for-profit organization that sets standards required for high school students to earn advanced placement credit. The goal of the organization is to increase opportunities for high school students to attend college by raising the bar not just on factual knowledge, but on thoughtful consideration of historical events. Since the debate over historical accuracy is already in full swing, the organization has been under fire by GOP representatives from a number of conservative states. Their goal is to manipulate the way the curriculum is written and, therefore, rewrite the history of the United States to favor their belief in American Exceptionalism—a deeply naive concept that’s long overdue for retirement.
When All Else Fails, Ditch Class
Lawmakers from the state of Oklahoma recently approved a bill that would reduce funding for Advanced Placement History classes. This is an example of one effort that was designed not to influence, but actually eliminate the content in the curriculum that these legislators disagree with. Comparable efforts took place in Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, North Carolina, and Colorado. The justification being presented for this endeavor is that the subject matter paints America in an unflattering light and emphasizes white bigotry.
But here’s the important question: Why shouldn’t it? Slavery is a very real part of America’s past, and we’re still feeling its insidious effects today. The vice-president of the Confederacy himself acknowledged that slavery was the reason behind the Civil War. So why ignore this hugely important part of our shared history? It’s clear that to understand the present daym we need to understand and acknowledge our past.
So this GOP bill, passed in Oklahoma, would prefer to punish the students by getting rid of the class altogether instead of working within the College Board framework to influence potential changes. This all-or-nothing approach can often produce a high degree of collateral damage (students, in this case). Even though the College Board emphasizes that the information is simply a framework that the educator can draw from, vehement opposition from the GOP continues practically unabated.
GOP Stalwart and Presidential Candidate Ben Carson characterized the curriculum as being so anti-American that students would be prepared sign up for ISIS after experiencing it. How does a conservative movement enlist this level of support? Particularly when the experts who fashioned the curriculum have numerous years of experience in teaching, education, and curriculum development? Carson is a good candidate for writing medical school curricula, but should perhaps stay out of history. Perhaps all career politicians should, unless they have previous experience as an educator.
This unlikely movement, however, has been so successful in GOP strongholds that the College Board released new AP standards, many of which change specific mentions of the word “white” as a descriptor and eliminate a number of negative references to racial debates or philosophies. Although the rationale for the revisions is said to be based on feedback from teachers and higher education faculty, it’s much more likely that the College Board was tired of the unrelenting pressure from revisionists. Those who established the original curriculum outlined their dismay about the decision to edit the current framework and voiced their support for the curriculum they helped develop. I wonder what educators and faculty in California, Nevada, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota think. Was their feedback even considered? My guess is no.
Are We Made By History?
History was one of my favorite classes: learning about how our nation was formed, taking in the different eras, wondering how the past has been learned from (or not). And earning college credit along the way? That’s a double bonus. But the things we reveal and the things we try to hide from students at any grade level changes how these students think about this country and their place in our nation. This particular revelation (or lack thereof) can impact how the future leaders of our country are formed.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are not makers of history—we are made by history.” How can we as a country learn from a history that is rewritten to adhere to biased and deeply flawed political positions? Do historians no longer have a role in interpreting the past? A history that eliminates certain unsavory facts such as bigotry and Manifest Destiny may by its very removal reinforce the behaviors we’re trying so hard not to talk about. As it has been said, history repeats itself.
In this case, I truly hope not. But to change course, we need to recognize that teaching our students (and future leaders) is too important to leave to partisan bias.
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