We Americans live in “a present-tense society,” the late Christopher Hitchens observed. Hitchens was wrong about a great deal, but he got this right. And the “historylessness” that Hitchens found in contemporary America is far from new. We are “the great nation of futurity,” journalist John L. Sullivan proclaimed one hundred seventy years ago. “Our national birth was the beginning of a new history,” the editor of the Democratic Review explained to his readers. It “separates us from the past and connects us with the future only.” In sum, we Americans are “stranded in the present”—to borrow Margaret Bendroth’s haunting phrase—and we like it that way.
Given this present-mindedness, it’s pretty rare to see individuals other than history teachers and historians wringing their hands about the way that American history is taught in our schools. Last week was an exception. As I wrote about in my last post, Oklahoma state legislator Daniel Fisher set off a firestorm when he introduced a bill that would defund the teaching of A. P. United States history in Oklahoma. Fisher condemns the AP U. S. history curriculum for emphasizing “what is bad about America.” He proposed to mandate a curriculum for all Oklahoma public schools that would emphasize historical documents “that contributed to the representative form of limited government, the free-market economic system and American exceptionalism.”
Overall, the charges and counter-charges that Fisher’s proposal precipitated have generated more heat than light. Polemics have ruled the day. Fisher flatly declared that the AP guidelines present the U. S. as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.” Andrea Tantaros of Fox News summed up the 120-page framework as “meaningless liberal crap.” Both stopped short of Ben Carson’s claim in a speech last fall that “most people when they finish that course, they’d be ready to go sign up for ISIS.”
Critics of Fisher’s measure have been just as irresponsible. Oklahoma Republicans have voted to “ban history,” a writer for The Maneater insists. The “Right Hates American History” blares the title of a screed picked up by salon.com. More troubling—because I thought its standards were higher—the Washington Post laments “The Bizarre War against AP U. S. History Courses” and repeats the ridiculous assertion that Oklahoma Republicans are “trying to ban the teaching of U. S. history. Yes. U. S. history.”
Ad hominem attacks abound. According to defenders of the College Board, no one who criticizes the AP guidelines could possibly be honorable. Fisher’s measure was merely the latest step in a “sinister” conspiracy against public education. Conservatives fear the truth and want a whitewashed version of the American past. Driven by partisanship—in stark contrast to their noble opponents—they are in the business of “preserving blind spots rather than promoting enlightenment.”
An exception is a piece in the Atlantic by education writer Jacoba Urist. I don’t agree with its every detail, but I admire the article for its balance. I also appreciate that the author refrains from cheap criticism and has chosen instead to identify key questions for us to wrestle with—complex questions that don’t admit of easy answers.
One of those questions, to quote Urist, is “How should students learn about oppression and exploitation alongside the great achievements of their country?” It’s a great question. With apologies to the Washington Post, I’ve yet to come across a critic of the AP guidelines who advocates eliminating from the classroom all the parts “of our history that might be uncomfortable, unflattering or even shameful.” As I understand Fisher and his supporters, their concern is that the AP guidelines overstate the negative and understate the positive, that they place too much emphasis on our flaws and not enough on our virtues. I don’t know that I agree with them, but there is no point in misstating their objection. Caricature isn’t the same as logical argument.
Defenders of the AP guidelines stress that their primary goal is not to fill students’ heads with names and dates but to train them to think historically, to teach them how to think critically about all interpretations of the past. Far from attacking America, they maintain that they are equipping students to be better citizens of a free society by giving them the tools to evaluate arguments in the public square and make informed decisions grounded in evidence. I agree with these goals.
But history courses are never just exercises in thinking skills. Almost instinctively, our minds search for a story when we engage the past, and a moral to the story to boot. It is possible to teach American history as a story without a plot, as an endless stream of meaningless facts with no larger meaning. But if history is more than a parade of facts—and every historian that I know thinks that it is—then it is not wrong for Rep. Fisher to ask what kind of story it is that the AP curriculum promotes.
So the hard question remains: how do we find the “right” balance between criticism and celebration in the story that we tell about our nation’s past?
I don’t know. I am pretty sure that it would be disastrous to stipulate some sort of formula to follow. For readers of this blog who are Christians, however, may I share how my faith informs how I approach the question, at least at this point of my journey?
First of all, I absolutely reject the false dichotomy lurking in the current debate that pits patriotism against an honest acknowledgement of America’s failures and flaws. As a Christian, my primary identity should be in Christ, not in my nationality; my primary loyalty should be to Christ, not to my country. Called as I am to “be subject to the governing authorities” and to “love my neighbor as myself,” I must strive to be a blessing to the multiple concentric communities of which I am a part. This will lead naturally to a kind of commitment to my country. And to the degree that God has blessed me through the resources, institutions, and people of the United States, this will also lead to a gratitude for my country. Finally, this solicitude and thankfulness for my country will look a lot like what others call “patriotism.” But underlying it will be not a devotion to the United States as an end in itself, but an expression of more fundamental demonstrations of love of neighbor and gratitude to God.
Here an observation of G. K. Chesterton resonates with me powerfully as I think about my approach to our nation’s history. “Love is not blind,” Chesterton wrote in his 1908 work Orthodoxy. “That is the last thing it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.” In sum, we should never think that our love of country constrains us to minimize its faults, nor should we accept the suggestion that criticism of our country—either in the present or in the past—is somehow unloving or “unpatriotic.” Because love binds rather than blinds, we may criticize our country without sinning against it.
Second, as a Christian, my faith teaches me to expect that, whatever part of the human story I am studying, I will inevitably encounter aspects that are worthy of praise and others that are worthy of censure. Original sin has left its mark on everything that historians investigate: all nations and all historical eras. We study beings created in the image of God and disfigured by sin. We find always a mixture of the base and the noble, the dust of earth and the breath of God. I am not suggesting for a moment that all cultures are somehow morally equivalent—not remotely!—but I am suggesting that history that glosses over the imperfections of any group or individual is, to a greater or lesser degree, misrepresenting the human condition.
But if American history—like all national stories—has some combination of admirable and regrettable components, do we really need to call attention to both? What is lost by choosing to stress only the more positive aspects of our history? Why not focus solely on the aspects that inspire, encourage, and uplift?
I was asked precisely this some years ago when I spoke at a luncheon sponsored by a local chapter of a national patriotic organization, the Sons of the American Revolution. My talk was scheduled to come after the meal, and so during lunch I sat at a round table with several of the members and discussed history. Almost as soon as we were seated one of the older members began to wonder aloud why it was that historians so often tear down our heroes, and as we waited for the first course I began to suspect that I was to be the main course. I stammered something about the dust of the earth and the breath of God and how the human story always involves vestiges of both. It was at that point that one of the other members, a soft-spoken local pastor, leaned across the table and asked with a smile, “Granted that figures from the past always embody good and bad features, what is the harm of focusing primarily on the good in our national heritage?”
I wasn’t prepared for his question, and I know that I stumbled in my reply. If we could repeat that conversation today I would offer three reasons why a more balanced approach is preferable. The first is a simple commitment to honesty. As Christian scholar Ronald Wells points out, honest history “means more than merely telling the truth in factual terms but also telling the truth in all its complexity and ambiguity.” Second, in acknowledging the imperfections in America’s past, we’re also conveying a more accurate representation of human nature. History that glosses over human weaknesses and shortcomings is not just inaccurate. It teaches bad theology, leaving no room for the lingering effects of sin in the hearts of our forebears. Third and finally, when we make room for the moral failures in America’s past, we at the same time make greater room for the grace of God. The story of American power and prosperity becomes less a self-congratulatory celebration of our virtue and more of a testimony to God’s unmerited favor.
The former hardens us, the latter humbles us.