The Advanced Placement United States History test is back in the news again. That’s never good. As a society, pretty much the only time that we pay attention to American history is when it is used as ammunition in contemporary political debates. This instance is no exception.
If you missed it, the breaking news two days ago out of the Sooner State was that a committee of the Oklahoma legislature had recommended a bill that would effectively eliminate the teaching of A.P. U. S. history across the state. Sponsored by Republican representative Dan Fisher, the proposed measure would eliminate funding for AP courses operating under curricular guidelines recently redesigned by the College Board. Beyond telling Oklahoma educators what they can’t teach, the bill also stipulates in considerable detail what they must teach.
The back story involves efforts by the College Board to redesign the guidelines for its popular Advanced Placement U.S. test, an exam that high school students can take for possible college credit. The U. S. history exam is the most popular that the College Board offers; in 2013 alone some 443,000 students took the test. In a process that took nearly seven years to complete, the Board sought to restructure the exam to place less weight on rote memorization of names and dates and more emphasis on historical thinking skills. The redesign unfolded in multiple stages and involved input from both high school and college teachers at numerous steps along the way. They were implemented this past fall, and the first AP exam under the new guidelines will be administered this coming May. (Full Disclosure: I was one of 58 college teachers from across the country who participated in detailed focus-group discussions for the College Board in the fall of 2010. My feedback on the new design was mixed, but generally positive with regard to the overarching goal.)
Oklahoma legislator Daniel Fisher (R.-Yukon)
Ever since the College Board released its new guidelines last year, there have been ripples of dissatisfaction across the country, typically in conservative states like Texas, Georgia, and Colorado. Last summer the Republican National Committee joined the chorus of criticism, condemning the new guidelines in its gathering in Chicago in August. But none of the opponents of the measure have gone as far as Oklahoma’s Fisher. The new guidelines emphasize “what is bad about America,” the Baptist preacher said in a committee hearing, according to CNN. It “trades an emphasis on America’s founding principles of constitutional government in favor of robust analyses of gender and racial oppression and class ethnicity and the lives of marginalized people, where the emphasis on instruction is of America as a nation of oppressors.”
Fisher in the costume of a Revolutionary War Preacher
To counter the damage that this anti-American approach would inflict, Fisher proposed a two-pronged solution. First, effectively ban A.P. courses in Oklahoma until the College Board revokes its new guidelines. Second, require that all U. S. history courses taught in the state give proper attention to historical documents “that contributed to the representative form of limited government, the free-market economic system and American exceptionalism.” The nine-page bill that Fisher introduced last month goes on to list in considerable detail the specific documents that every U. S. history course in Oklahoma would have to teach at an age-appropriate level.
Setting aside for the moment the wisdom of legally imposing such a list, what would you include in your own list of essential documents from American History? Fisher begins with several broad but ambiguous categories of documents that every U. S. history course in the state “shall include as part of the primary instruction.” These include “organic documents from the pre-Colonial, Colonial, Revolutionary, Federalist, and post-Federalist eras”—we can only guess what he has in mind here—as well as “the writings, speeches, documents, and proclamations of the Founders and Presidents of the United States” (which ones? all of them?), United States Supreme Court decisions, acts of the United States Congress, and U. S. treaties. Whew! I’m not a legal expert, but surely such sweeping specifications are worse than useless.
Fisher then follows with a list of fifty-one other individual documents that would become required reading in the state’s history courses. These include such foundational documents as the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the “Constitution and its amendments,” and the Bill of Rights (which Fisher apparently doesn’t recognize as a subset of the Constitution’s amendments).
Among white male voices (a category top-heavy with American presidents), there are single documents by John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Alexis de Tocqueville, Frederick Jackson Turner, Andrew Carnegie, William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, John Steinbeck, George F. Kennan, Harry Truman, and George W. Bush. There are two documents each from Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. Three past presidents merit three selections each: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.
Finally, Fisher’s list includes nine required documents that reflect the perspectives of women or people of color: one each from Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Chief Joseph, Emma Lazarus, Booker T. Washington, and Malcom X, as well as two documents from Martin Luther King Jr.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s Dead White Males: 42, Women and People of Color: 9.
Actually, I am being somewhat facetious as I write this. I cringe when such debates boil down to counting the number of references to various gender and racial categories. The question is never purely one of arithmetic. And yet when critics of Fisher’s measure suggest that he represents a view of American history uninterested in acknowledging the diversity that has always characterized our past, let’s be honest: Fisher has given them more than enough to go on.
This week Fisher’s bill was approved in the state’s education committee, with all eleven Republican members present voting in support and all four Democrats voting against. Whether it has any chance of passing when and if it comes to a vote by the entire (lopsidedly-Republican) legislature is anybody’s guess. Its passage in committee has brought down a storm of criticism in the media, and if yesterday’s report in the Tulsa World is correct, Fisher appears to be backtracking in part, stressing that he is “very supportive of the AP program” and promising to “fix the bill” to eliminate ambiguous wording. In sum, this may blow over quickly.
But before our short attention spans drive us to other topics, here are my two cents on the matter, for what they’re worth. I have four quick observations, so I guess this means they’re worth a half a penny apiece:
First: The new guidelines aren’t perfect, in my opinion, but neither are they awful. I’ve never been a huge fan of the whole AP project, and I simply don’t believe that most high-school AP courses are equivalent in sophistication and rigor to the supposedly corresponding courses I have taught for the past quarter century at the University of Washington and Wheaton College, so I resist labeling what goes on there as “college-level” work. Having said that, last fall I sat down and took a sample test made available by the College Board, and I walked away more impressed than I thought I might be. I’m still not keen about granting college credit for such courses, but if my son or daughter were enrolled in a public high school right now, I can imagine that they would benefit from such a course. I would add that, as a political conservative myself, I discerned very little of the anti-American bias that Fisher and his Oklahoma legislative colleagues believe is rampant.
Second: I think there’s a fair amount of self-righteous posturing among both the defenders and critics of the bill. I know almost nothing about Reverend Fisher, and I am willing to believe that his motives are entirely honorable. Yet I think his public pronouncements, if quoted accurately, have been less than balanced. The claim that the new guidelines teach students “only what is bad about America” is simply unsupportable. The wording of the resolutions of the Republican National Committee is no better. In so many words, the RNC condemned the College Board for falsifying the past and portrayed the conflict as a struggle between those who peddled a “biased and inaccurate view” of U. S. History and those committed to teaching the “true history” of the country “without a political bias.”
With almost perfect symmetry, critics of Fisher’s bill have attacked the character of its proponents. In an editorial for CNN.com, columnist John Sutter condemned the Oklahoma education committee for advocating a whitewashed version of the nation’s past that “flies arrogantly in the face of history.” Fisher’s bill is a “partisan” distraction that diverts the state’s attention from its many real problems, Sutter writes, for example its stubborn prohibition of gay marriage.
Last summer, the executive secretary of the American Historical Association—the country’s premier organization of academic historians—accosted critics of the AP curriculum with the same sort of ad hominem argument. Criticism was driven in part by “ill-informed assumptions” and “political partisanship,” James Grossman maintained. But it was also fueled by an element in American society not all that interested in truth, individuals who were “unhappy . . . that a once comforting” but inaccurate story “has become, in the hands of scholars, more complex, unsettling, and provocative.”
Boiled down, both sides trumpet their own zeal for truth, both congratulate themselves for their integrity, and both insist that the other side has a monopoly on partisan motivations. Hmm.
Third: Related to the second observation, note how both sides accuse the other of “revisionism.” For example, in its resolutions from last summer, the Republican National Committee condemned the new A.P. guidelines for promoting a “radically revisionist view of American history.” In like manner, columnist Sutter condemns Fisher and his legislative allies for wanting to rewrite history instead of learn from it. He sums up their proposal as a “heap of revisionist, partisan nonsense.”
This is just the most recent illustration of the utter uselessness of “revisionist” as a meaningful label. Technically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term is supposed to describe “a person who questions or revises a previously accepted version of historical phenomena or events.” Today, for all practical purposes, Americans apply it to “any one who remembers the past differently than I do.” “Revisionists” lurk everywhere. Evangelicals see them in the secular Academy. President George W. Bush found them among Democratic critics of the Iraq War. “Tea Party” supporters smell revisionism among moderate Republicans. Atheists berate Christian revisionists. Liberal bloggers hang the tag on Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. NBC Sports applies the label to New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. (Seriously.) In popular parlance, the term is useless.
It is also mean-spirited. According to popular usage, revisionists not only disagree with us about the past; they intentionally distort the past to promote personal agendas such as political advancement or the downfall of western civilization. In sum, as we wield it today the expression is typically a character attack. Had it existed in the Old West, a hush would have fallen in the saloon whenever a black-hearted villain uttered it across the poker table. (“Ya better smile when you say that, pardner.”)
Finally: The whole idea of trying to prescribe by law the subject matter of U. S. history classrooms is appallingly misguided. To begin with, the measure would establish a frightful precedent. As I remind my students, whenever we are trying to decide about the wisdom of a proposed law, it is always best to imagine ourselves as part of the political minority. Before granting a new power to any level of government, in other words, it is always a good idea to imagine how we would feel to have that power wielded against us. If we should find such an outcome insufferable, then we have no business supporting the law. Otherwise, we are effectively saying that we are willing to impose a power on others that we would be unwilling to submit to ourselves. In the case of the proposed legislation, Fisher is establishing a precedent by which a future legislature might lawfully mandate a history curriculum that would promote the very view of the American past he is trying to combat.
Beyond this, it is foolish to think that mandating the teaching of a particular document guarantees the promotion of a particular reading of American history or the affirmation of a particular political or social value. Interpretation is always an integral part of the teaching of history. Historical facts never speak for themselves. Historical documents rarely admit of only one possible interpretation. To give but one example, the Declaration of Independence can be taught as a bright and shining pronouncement of an egalitarian ideal or as the hypocritical rhetoric of a Virginia planter who railed against tyranny while owning 150 slaves.
Simply put, Representative Fisher’s list cannot ensure the teaching of the interpretation of American History that he believes is correct. That can only be done by firing all of the state’s educators who disagree with his interpretation. Until he’s willing to destroy academic freedom in the name of American exceptionalism, his goal is beyond reach.
In truth, I suspect that most of the individuals on both sides of this debate want the same thing. Most, I am convinced, believe that history education can play a vital role in strengthening and sustaining our democracy. Where they disagree is how best to promote that end. What skills, knowledge, values, and beliefs are essential to a flourishing free society? The history classroom is actually a wonderful venue for wrestling with those questions. Just don’t let the politicians determine the answers.