Tag Archives: Daniel Fisher

THE YEAR IN REVIEW: WHAT YOU READ HERE IN 2015

As 2015 draws to a close, I’ve spent the morning alternately looking through my office window at the snowy campus and reviewing the WordPress statistics on what you read from this blog over the past year.  I thought I would share a bit of what I learned.  None of the posts below was exactly “popular,” but quite a few of you thought they were worth reading.

Light and the Glory I** For the second year in a row, the most widely read essay of the past twelve months was a piece that I wrote back in 2013 on The Light and the Glory, by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel.  Marshall and Manuel began their fabulously popular “God’s Plan for America” trilogy nearly four decades ago, and their Christian interpretation of U.S. history has shown remarkable staying power.  I respect both authors and sympathize with their motives, but their approach to America’s past is deeply flawed and, I fear, has done much harm.  If you know someone who has been influenced by their interpretation and might be open to being challenged, would you consider forwarding them the link to my essay “Thoughts on The Light and the Glory?

Lewis II** The second most read post in 2015 was also from a previous year, my essay on a marvelous metaphor from C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.  In that WWII-era classic, Lewis observed that “the pressing educational need of the moment” was not to “cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”  Lewis’s enduring popularity among Christians interested in the life of the mind surely accounts for the success of this post.  For my take on Lewis’s metaphor and how it has informed my sense of calling as a teacher, see “C. S. Lewis on ‘Cutting Down Jungles’ and ‘Irrigating Deserts.'”

Oklahoma legislator Daniel Fisher

Oklahoma legislator Daniel Fisher

But what about the posts I actually shared this year?  (There have been 106 of them.)  The most popular had to do with my take as a historian on current historical controversies.  The first was a series of two posts last February in response to a proposal by Oklahoma state legislator Daniel Fisher to withdraw state funding from Advanced Placement U. S. History courses and stipulate the U. S. History curriculum for all state classrooms.  Although I’m no fan of the A.P. empire, I thought the proposal was colossally misguided.  If you missed them and would be interested in my reasoning or would like to know how my Christian convictions guide my thoughts about the value of history, see:

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

Next in popularity came a series of posts sparked by the tragic murder of nine congregants at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17 combined with the subsequent dissemination of pictures of the gunman posing with a Confederate battle flag.  The resulting furor led to an emotional national conversation about the meaning of one of the most controversial symbols in our nation’s past.  I wrote six lengthy reflections on the debate, calling attention to the ways that both sides of the argument tended to remember the past selectively and simplistically.  If you’re interested, you can revisit them by clicking on the links below:

Thanks for reading this past year.  I hope we can talk more in 2016.

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.

SHOULD ADVANCED PLACEMENT U. S. HISTORY BE BANNED?

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

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

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.