WHAT IS HISTORY FOR? MORE THOUGHTS ON THE A.P. HISTORY CONTROVERSY

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.

Oklahoma legislator Daniel Fisher

Oklahoma legislator Daniel Fisher

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 He proposed to mandate a curriculum for all Oklahoma public schools that would emphasize historical documents “that contributed to the representative form of limited government, the free-market economic system and American exceptionalism.”

FOX News' Andrea Tantaros bemoaning "meaningless liberal crap"

FOX News’ Andrea Tantaros bemoaning “meaningless liberal crap”

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.

11 responses to “WHAT IS HISTORY FOR? MORE THOUGHTS ON THE A.P. HISTORY CONTROVERSY

  1. Pingback: THE YEAR IN REVIEW: WHAT YOU READ HERE IN 2015 | Faith and History

  2. Jim Cunningham

    I found your choice of words in the following sentence interesting – “Finally, this solicitude and thankfulness for my country will look a lot like what others call ‘patriotism.’ ” I may be reading too much into this, but it sounds like you are trying to avoid saying that Christians should be patriotic. If so, I commend you for it. I don’t find anything in the New Testament that teaches that patriotism, as the term is generally used, is a Christian virtue.

    And one of Mr. Kugler’s sentences seemed to me to be hinting at the same thing (again, I could be reading too much into this) – “I have a suspicion that the good men sitting with you at that table and others in the room imagine a nation that demands a kind of love you and I can’t reconcile simply with the Good News or submission to Christ.”

    I look forward to hearing more on this topic as you write about how Christians should think about America and its history, particularly the Revolutionary Era.

  3. Well, Tracy, you seem to have hit a rich vein of controversy and debate by taking on the AP issue. By placing the debate in the context of Scripture and our Christian faith, you have been able to shift the debate to more important grounds. As a retired public school history teacher, I am very sensitive to the needs of students who do not find their history in the mainstream of the white American success story. These students may sit still and not protest historical interpretations that demean them or leave their history out, but they will recognize the slight and wonder whether they have a place in America’s story after all. We can certainly study the Declaration of Independence and find reasons for patriotism but we should not neglect the hypocrisy of the slaveholder proclaiming that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!

  4. Tracy, thank you for the article!. I am a pastor and a avid historian. I have a
    son at graduate school in public history at a state university. I sure have empathy and prayers for Pastor Fisher and for everyone trying to fight the battles we are engaged in with our post-modern society. I am thankful for men like yourself, my son, and young Christians involved in academia.
    It is sometimes akin to be a Christian in the middle of the Roman forum.
    Now that I am older and have learned through many mistakes, I approach
    this subject through three questions found in scripture:
    1. If the foundations be destroyed, What can the righteous do? (Psalm
    11:3) Honestly, nothing apart tearing downing and rebuilding the
    foundation. Pastor Fisher was going after a symptom. State education
    is flawed at the foundation. Even most Christians reject this
    premise. We have to build a foundation (Christ and his word) in our
    children’s heart that cannot be shaken.
    2. What is truth? (john 18 :38) Everything, including history is filtered,
    through the lens of scripture. I don’t know what i would without scriptures
    like Psalm 11 and Daniel 2: 20-23. I encourage young people to
    study the Bible more and more, whatever their field. Thy word is truth!
    Honestly, we are a biblically illiterate generation.
    3. They have rejected the word of Lord, so what wisdom is in them?
    (Jer. 8:9) None! I admire men that have done so much research, read
    their works, and appreciate their scholarship, but without God’s
    understanding their interpretation is fatally flawed. The fear of the
    Lord is the beginning of knowledge.
    Thanks so much again for insight and i thank God he has placed
    you in your position. Stay faithful to Christ and his word. God bless!

    • Dear Mr. Bates: Thank you for sharing these three foundational questions form scripture, and thanks also for your encouragement. I wish you well and your son also. Given his graduate work in public history, your son might be interested in becoming involved in the Conference on Faith and History, an organization that I used to serve as president. Best, TM

  5. The more I think of doing history in some way faithful to allegiance to Christ, the more I think of the Incarnation. The consequence is that I feel less bound to “the nation” or institutions as narrative plots or characters in a true story. Perhaps to borrow an idea from Walter Wink via Bonhoeffer and others, I should find ways to undermine the conviction that “the nation” or “the state” is a Platonic entity out there that more or less resembles a moral and theological ideal. Theologically, they are “powers” and in my Augustinian POV they are created for fallen purposes by fallen humans but tolerated by God. Yet people love what they imagine is their country, they sacrifice for that country, they serve in many honorable ways (as an aside, this seems to be part of what is going on in the _American Sniper_ controversy: what is the _best_ America each arguing side imagines?). I’m fascinated with big national narratives and I admire how Lendol Calder, John Fea, and you among others are encouraging your colleagues to think in those terms as well as historical thinking as part of something once called moral philosophy. The so-called liberal attack on American history and heroes seems at its best as an exercise in that work, too. The odd thing for me is that my theological convictions have brought me now to the place, as I suggested above, where I share some of those suspicions of the nation as the center of the story. I realize that a useful past, moral reflection, and disciplined historical thinking demand taking the nation seriously, even to the point of defending important parts of “the American experiment”. Your conviction to tell the truth in a generous manner is just as honorable as those who hope to honor America with uplifting stories. But I fear you won’t make many friends. I have a suspicion that the good men sitting with you at that table and others in the room imagine a nation that demands a kind of love you and I can’t reconcile simply with the Good News or submission to Christ. Keep working on this, Tracy. Its good work and I’m recommending your blog discussion to people and students interested in this topic.

    • Dear Mike: Your reflections are thoughtful and thought-provoking, but of course I wouldn’t expect anything else. Thanks so much for your input, and thanks for the encouragement. Tracy

  6. Pingback: WHAT IS HISTORY FOR? MORE THOUGHTS ON THE A.P. HISTORY CONTROVERSY | Buffalo Doug

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  8. The ‘Black Robe Regiment’: History, law professors counter Oklahoma lawmaker who targeted AP history:

    http://m.tulsaworld.com/news/local/the-black-robe-regiment-history-law-professors-counter-oklahoma-lawmaker/article_b56e3336-9e47-5bb1-840c-e59e08847e28.html?mode=jqm

    http://www.ocolly.com/news/article_8020d954-be14-11e4-9117-1fbd5bac9ed9.html

    http://www.ocolly.com/opinion/article_53eb0e74-bd72-11e4-8c7d-8f509321bf39.html

    Greetings, thank you very much for this well articulated and thoughtful post. I learned more about the underlining pedagogy of the AP History debate from your post than from the media/news. You address, in this post, some simple yet discarded questions, philosophic motives, and ideologies many historians and teachers in the humanities suppress, fight against, or never answer so not to be seen out of the ivory tower many reside with scorn for the general public. As a public historian myself and Christian (of the Reform leaning flavor), your article was refreshing amidst god-haters and citizens of this earthly kingdom. You are correct, history (in the fullest sense of the term) is extremely powerful as a social “tool” for scholars and lawmakers. Turning thus to my above links [if you have the time or desire to read them]:

    Regarding the material in the news articles I linked above, overall, Dr. Cooper is giving his opinion and facts, but he may be generalizing on George Washington’s deism (I would know because I just finished taking a grad colonial reading seminary with him) – nonetheless Cooper did correctly choose three of the most deist Founders, evident in George Washington’s (G. W.) lack of traditional religious practice (Church attendance) – but I would not call G. Washington a definitive deist in the historical and theological sense when one looks at G. W.’s entire brevity of letters.

    The law professor from OCU was interesting, and much of the University of Tulsa Law professor’s (Gary Allison) comments were solid, but his phrase that “. . . and there is no mention of being a Christian nation. They spoke of a Creator but not in terms the Christian ministry would use” is misleading. It is true that Gary is only referencing the decades surrounding the USA’s founding, but a 1844 Supreme Court case (Vidal v. Girard Executors) does state that “. . . It is unnecessary for us, however, to consider what would be the legal effect of a devise in Pennsylvania for the establishment of a school or college, for the propagation of Judaism, or Deism, or any other form of infidelity. Such a case is not to be presumed to exist in a Christian country, and therefore it must be made out by clear and indisputable proof. Remote inferences, or possible results, or speculative tendencies, are not to be drawn or adopted for such purposes. There must be plain, positive, and express provisions, demonstrating not only that Christianity is not to be taught, but that it is to be impugned or repudiated . . .” Vidal v. Girard’s Executors 43 U.S. 127 (1844).

    [Vidal v. Girard’s Executors 43 U.S. 127 (1844)
    U.S. Supreme Court Vidal v. Girard’s Executors, 43 U.S. 2 How. 127 127 (1844) Vidal v. Girard’s Executors 43 U.S. (2 How.) 127 APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COUR…
    View on supreme.justia.com]

    Thus, this issue does have differing opinions on the degree religion/Christianity had on the US’s founding, but it should be noted that all sides hold biases toward their respected pedagogic beliefs and view US history in light of this worldview and the individual views on how the “world” should operate.

    Final thoughts, from a Christian perspective, Fisher may be wrong in his desire to unite the public voices of pastor and representative. While there is no legal, moral, or God-given (or Natural law) prohibition for pastors to stay silent on political issues or viewpoints from the pulpit (note: the US Constitution’s First Amendment and state [OK] amendments); Fisher, I think, wrongfully tries to act, talk, and operate as a Christan pastor/preacher while also in the role of a representative – I have attended a few of Fisher’s Oklahoma summer “conferences”. This is not to say representatives should not have moral, religious missions/worldview (we are in a dangerous state in the US if our representatives lack a moral core in their voting), but the pastor/elder is established (in the Scriptures) to shepherd his flock first, and thus in the absence of a theocratic nation-state the pastor should not act like a elder in the House of Representatives – this does not mean a representatives religion should not influence their voting [note historic precedence].

    Ultimately, Fisher’s actions are so vehemently and hotly rebuffed (on the Oklahoma and national stage) in part because he insulted the sacred cow of secular post-1970s public education, secular-humanist history (worldview), and the funding and worldview of statists. Fisher may have possessed unwise motives and tactics in changing the Oklahoma AP History curriculum through the legislature, but he did, in some degree, understatement or ignore many critics who may be correct on American History and its founding but separated from ultimate wisdom and knowledge as citizens of the City of Man.

    Again, excellent essay (along with the previous post on the same topic 2/21/2015). I will pass this post on to others interested in this debate/discussion. Currently as an Oklahoma graduate student in history, I am observing this with my colleagues – but with less scorn for the worldviews of Christianity and limited-government. I am glad I came across your post today.

    In Christ,

    An Oklahoma citizen and student

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