The AP US History Controversy, Liberal Bias and History as the Study and Practice of Drawing Conclusions

The new AP United States history framework has prompted a lot of controversy. The media has picked it up in waves, first last summer, then in September with the sick-outs in Colorado, over the winter with the debates in Georgia, and most recently with the Oklahoma bill that has now been pulled for further review. Often the headlines describing the movement against the curriculum are laughable, employ Orwellian language, and references to North Korea and totalitarianism abound.

My AP classes were discussing the Scopes Monkey Trial and the culture wars of the 1920s (often cited as a parallel in reports on the AP US debates) while the Oklahoma debates were happening. There was a parallel between Foner’s discussion of the fundamentalists in our textbook and the technique of labeling opponents of the new framework with these volatile, extremist words. I recognized, perhaps begrudgingly, that there is a lot of support to revise the standards, just as there was a lot of support to enact Prohibition, the 1924 Immigration Act, teaching creationism etc. However my making that connection may be part of my liberal bias. Although at times the supporters of the move to revert to the old AP standards are sometimes comical in their description and clearly lack of understanding of the curriculum (I pleaded with my students that the curriculum should not make them want to join ISIS), I wondered about what they really seem to be objecting to, the “liberal takeover” of history education. Is education, especially higher education intrinsically liberal? Do the opponents of the curriculum want a nationalist curriculum? Or am I misunderstanding them? Is it liberal to consider how liberal my curriculum is? It can not be that simple. Maybe it is. I used this current event to discuss historiography, and the idea of revisionist history, but also the importance of looking for point of view in everything.

We started first with a list of quotes about the study of history, several from the approved documents list from the Oklahoma Bill.

America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand. –Harry S Truman (approved source)

Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death! –Patrick Henry (approved source)

The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults. –Alexis de Tocqueville (approved source)

I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. –Thomas Jefferson (approved source)

The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice. –Mark Twain

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. –Maya Angelou

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history. –Aldous Huxley

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. –H. G. Wells

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history. –George Orwell

There is an old saying about those who forget history. I don’t remember it, but it is good. –Stephen Colbert

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) “The New Colossus” [titled “Sonnet” in notebook] 1883. Manuscript poem, bound in journal. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society, New York and Newton Centre, Massachusetts (41)

Jacob August Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement–“Five Cents a Spot”, 1889, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

 

Then we looked at the composition of the sources on the Oklahoma bill. Many reports about the bill noted the lack of diversity in the sources (which my own quote list above probably wouldn’t stand up to either) nearly every article about the bill highlighted fact that the ten commandments made the list of 52 documents, the 4 documents by women, the single document (of surrender) by a native American, and the five documents from non-white men (non from non-white women). Of these 52 documents, only 2 are truly critical of the United States. What many articles and reports failed to note however, is that within the new curriculum framework, I taught 90% of these 52 documents, however I also taught many documents that showed an alternative “America”. For example, their summer work included a document-based question about American exceptionalism, which they wrote after reading Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. They read Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” but they also considered a Jacob Riis photograph. As we considered the Oklahoma Bill I had the students check off which ones they knew, highlight in different colors those sources that were written by members of a minority group, and asked them to try and come up with a primary source that might contradict or challenge each of the 52 sources. It became a review lesson as well.

I was left wondering, is the critique of with the new curriculum that the conclusion many students come to after a consideration of both sources often finds America lacking? A student last year came into class a few weeks in and said, “Ms. Berry, I like this class, but I do not like America anymore.” Georgia students protesting the legislation to limit funding to the AP had an interesting take on this “anti-America” trend in AP textbooks, “As someone who is directly affected by this class every day, I must say that statement is false. Students in Gwinnett County are taught about the positive effects the United States has had on the world since we are in elementary school.” 

In trying to understand the bill, and the impulses in American society behind it, how do I avoid the liberal bias? By naming it? Is it “liberal” to name bias, even if it is reflective?

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One thought on “The AP US History Controversy, Liberal Bias and History as the Study and Practice of Drawing Conclusions

  1. Pingback: Why Study History?: Thoughts on the Job of a Historian for History Teachers | Teach Awake.

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