I woke up to this headline on a friend’s Facebook and shared the story right away. I knew my friends who are teachers and readers would want to see it, too. Another friend of mine commented with disbelief. “Is this satire?” she wrote, followed by a few WTFs. That’s a reasonable reaction to the discovery that the RNC and other influential conservative politicians have effectively replaced AP US History with the teaching of the theory of American exceptionalism. That statement may seem dramatic, but I don’t think it so when the same ideologies have led to this: “Texas also recently changed its state academic guidelines, which means its new textbooks won’t mention the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws.” When I first heard about that decision in Texas, I expressed my alarm, and many of my fellow New Yorkers just shook their heads in that “what are ya gonna do?” way. One quipped, “Well, I hear you don’t mess with Texas.” The general attitude was that this was crazy, but it was an isolated, small crazy. However, as ThinkProgress points out in this article, “Texas is a very influential textbook market, and publishers tend to look to Texas when deciding content for the textbooks they publish.” The impact of these decisions has a far wider reach than we like to acknowledge. These aren’t bizarre revisions to our nation’s past that affect remote communities. High schools across the country offer AP courses, and the presence of these classes is often seen as a marker for a school’s prestige and quality. In other words:
…stunting students with warped, sugar-coated notions of social and political history will only foster more divisiveness. Affluent, whiter schools tend to have a wider array of AP coursework than others. Indoctrinating these students with inaccurate portrayals of a historiographically flawless United States will cement an already extant unwillingness to understand or identify with groups that are still dealing with the reverberations of systemic disenfranchisement today. (Flanigan, “All the Ways the New AP US History Standards Gloss Over the Country’s Racist Past”)
When I wrote this post about my experiences with Facing History following the death of Michael Brown, I gave voice to a long-standing, ever-present tension within me about my responsibility and role as a teacher. Teaching history is not merely a job; it’s a responsibility. Even when that history is hard to look at, or unflattering, or painful, we are responsible for teaching it honestly to those who did not live it. We can’t be afraid to do that. Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly where these policies come from: fear.
I was talking to a friend recently about how differently the US teaches its history from Germany. Germany has some dark history, but everything I’ve read about it shows a consistent effort to confront that past with students so that things change. It’s looking fear in the face, turning on the lights and revealing the monster instead of running from it and letting it grow huge. Back in 1995, Alan Cowell, for the New York Times, wrote about a history class in Germany. Cowell observes: “They are taught that the Nazis came to power on the wings of economic collapse and humiliation at Germany’s defeat in the First World War. They are taught about Hitler’s race laws. They are taught that their forebears killed six million Jews. But they also learn that this was history, with a European and a German context, not personal guilt.” This approach to teaching history does not shame or harm students, but instead puts them in positions of power; in this setting, students can see that their choices matter, and that their perspective gives them an advantage over their forebears. History through this lens is authentic and vital, the key to changing the world and making a difference.
Critics of the changes to the AP US History curriculum guidelines do not seem to hold these values: empowering students, improving American society, truth. ThinkProgress reports: “Some of the main criticisms of the guidelines, conservatives voiced, were less emphasis on the founding fathers and more emphasis on slavery. The guidelines also included earlier American history that included violence against Native Americans and mentioned the growing influence of social conservatives.“ To protest the inclusion of these realities indicates a clear political agenda, and in disguising it as patriotism they pervert patriotism; they send the message that we can only be proud of our nation by hiding its true past and lying to our children.
This insistence on fragility and the demands that history be blurred and revised to protect the feelings of students is both misguided and deeply harmful. It’s pervasive, though, and effective, because it feeds directly into the culture of fear. “In September of last year, Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon who is now running for president, said ‘most people’ who take the course would be ‘ready to sign up for ISIS.’” Confronting our past and giving voice to those whose stories have historically been silenced is not about finger-wagging, shaming, or demanding apology. It’s about examining how and why genocide, slavery, and institutionalized racism happened in our country, because only doing this will empower young people to make choices that break the persistent patterns surrounding them. It’s about making sure we understand that what we have to be ashamed of is that 40,000 people think that their discomfort gives them the right to erase history, rather than a reason to write a better future.
About a year ago, a Reddit user asked German-educated members of the online community to share what it was like to learn about World War Two in their country. The anecdotes shared are interesting and inspiring, but I was particularly struck by one user’s takeaway.
It’s not the past that should define us, but how we deal with it. Most countries brush their past aside. Deny their mistakes. Their crimes. They ignore it. Place blame on the others. Refuse to learn from it. Germans don’t do that. And that should make us proud. Patriotism should always have its limits. You can be a patriot without denying your [country’s] past and its crimes.
I can’t say it better than that.