Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Return of The History Wars, AP Edition

In the past few years the wars over how history is taught and presented in public have flared once again.  This is hardly surprising, since interpretations of American history have major implications when it comes to national identity and judging modern day policies and events.  A few years back Texas was in the headlines for rewriting history standards so that the curriculum pushed an essentially Right wing interpretation of American history, from implanting God in the Constitution to singing the praises of capitalism to renaming the slave trade "triangular trade" and placing a huge emphasis on "American exceptionalism."

Now the focus has shifted to the AP American history course more broadly.  Back in the 90s the big war in this regard was over the attempt by the NEH to formulate national history standards that reflected recent historical scholarship and rejected a nationalist interpretation.  Lynn Cheney (yes, that Lynn Cheney) organized an assault on the standards that led to them being condemned in a Senate resolution.  Those history standards bit the dust, but the AP curriculum has de facto become a national curriculum because those students wishing to take the AP test need to take AP classes with a curriculum that's the same in Texas and Massachusetts.  That new curriculum happens to reflect, like the 1990s standards, current scholarly work on American history.  More crucially, it treats America like it's any other country, and thus is not an exercise in building nationalism or "civics."  (If the AP is supposed to be a college-level class, I would expect nothing less.)

Apparently the people who mobilized against the NEH standards are just as incensed over the AP, judging by a letter signed by the likes of Victor Davis Hanson and, yes, Lynn Cheney.  The letter (which I will get to in a minute) follows condemnations of the AP curriculum in local school districts and even by the state legislature in Oklahoma.  Attacking it has become a cause celebre in right wing media circles, as evidenced by a Fox News segment recently.  Here is a long quote from the letter:

"The new framework is organized around such abstractions as “identity,” “peopling,” “work, exchange, and technology,” and “human geography” while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution. Elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict. The new framework scrubs away all traces of what used to be the chief glory of historical writing—vivid and compelling narrative—and reduces history to an bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces. Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals. The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that selfconsciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective. There are notable political or ideological biases inherent in the 2014 framework, and certain structural innovations that will inevitably result in imbalance in the test, and bias in the course. Chief among these is the treatment of American national identity. The 2010 framework treated national identity, including “views of the American national character and ideas about American exceptionalism” as a central theme. But the 2014 framework makes a dramatic shift away from that emphasis, choosing instead to grant far more extensive attention to “how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic identities.” The new framework makes a shift from “identity” to “identities.” Indeed, the new framework is so populated with examples of American history as the conflict between social groups, and so inattentive to the sources of national unity and cohesion, that it is hard to see how  students will gain any coherent idea of what those sources might be."
When it talks of narrative having once been the "chief glory" of historical writing, I'm confused because that has not been the language of historical scholarship since the 1960s.  We would be upset if we taught our science students methodologies from fifty years ago instead of what's used today by actual scientists, so why go back to the way history used to be done?  The whole jist of the letter is to complain that developments in the historical profession in the last fifty years are actually being taught to high school students, who ought to be learning a long dead consensus narrative intended to make them obedient citizens who won't question whether America actually lives up to its ideals.  They seem especially incensed by its transnational focus, which well reflects the current trends in the field, but also completely undermines the fatuous notion of "American exceptionalism."

Its hardly surprising that a racist like Hanson and a hardcore conservative like Cheney would want students to be taught a literally and figuratively whitewashed version of American history.  This idea that national history classes be a staging ground for nationalist indoctrination is hardly new, in fact it was the very motivation for their existence.  When France instituted compulsory education in the 1880s, it required French history, and one of that curriculum's architects claimed it was intended to "make French boys want to die for France."  Much of what has been taught in American schools since then was very similar in intent.

The History Wars are really a fight over whether students in American schools will actually learn America's history, warts and all, removed from any designation of the USA being "special" or "exceptional," or whether American history education will still continue as a tool for nationalist indoctrination and the denial of the unpleasant realities of the past.  If students learn and absorb this nation's history of racism, class stratification, gender inequality, and imperialism, it will certainly make them less likely to deny that those things exist in the present day.  That is why the History Wars matter, and why historians need to get out of the archives and universities and into the public sphere.

No comments: