Conservatives Unhappy About History—Insist That Nicer Narratives Be Taught

Larry KriegerMichael Hiltzik brought my attention to a new education outrage, Republicans Throw a Conniption Over the Teaching of US History. Sadly, this one is particularly bad not because of the conservatives—I’m so used to anti-intellectualism on the right that it hardly registers. This one is terrible because of the total spinelessness of one very prominent educator.

The whole thing is about the new history outline for Advanced Placement classes issued by the College Board. It seems that retired teacher and AP test guide author Larry Krieger is unhappy because the outline doesn’t push his own personal view of American greatness. He is upset, for example, that Benjamin Franklin isn’t even mentioned in the outline. Can you imagine?! This is a historical figure that all American children have crammed down their throats from the first grade. What possible reason could the outline have for not mentioning him by name? I mean, other than the fact that students get college credit for AP courses and would be expected to have a pretty good understanding of both the man and his importance in the history of America?

What Krieger is really up to is clear in his reaction to this photograph by Jacob Riis of tenement conditions in New York in 1890:


Hiltzik describes the test question and Krieger’s objection:

One question asked is “Conditions like those shown in the image contributed most directly to which of the following?” The correct answer is, “An increase in Progressive reform activity.”

Kreiger comments, “That’s historically true but note that progressives are going to be the heroes in this narrative.”

There’s your bottom line. In the conservative educational world, historical truth will take you only so far. It’s the ideological narrative they’re concerned with, and if it doesn’t conform to their vision of an America invariably shining the light of freedom and plenty on the world, it must be “biased and inaccurate.”

All of this has led to the Republican National Committee passing a resolution calling the outline “biased and inaccurate” and asking for Congress to defund the College Board. But what is terrible is that the new College Board president, David Coleman, more or less caved as one would expect from the conservative stereotype of a liberal academic:

The board’s president, David Coleman, responded with a pusillanimous open letter praising the critics as “patriots who care deeply about what students learn” and bowing to the “principled confusion the new framework produced.” If he thinks this sort of soft-soaping will mollify the mob, he’s got another thing coming.

Coleman also notes that he joined the College Board “after the new US History framework was developed and released” (emphasis his), which is an odd way of standing up foursquare for years of work by one’s colleagues. He sounds a bit like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Duke of Plaza-Toro, who “when there was any fighting… led his regiment from behind.”

Thankfully, the teachers who actually wrote the outline are fighting back. Their open letter is the kind of sharp attack that is critical if we are not going to allow ever more knowledge to fall into the black hole of “He said—she said—who can possibly say?” reporting that has now engulfed climate science and constantly threatens evolution theory.

We are writing this letter to correct recent uninformed criticisms that have been made in the press about the AP US History Curriculum Framework. We are proud to have participated in this landmark project to improve the teaching of United States History. We hope that this new course will help train a generation of students to understand their nation’s history and to be active citizens who can apply their understanding of the past to their daily lives.

The motivation to redesign AP United States History came first and foremost from AP teachers, who repeatedly expressed frustration with the way they believed the AP US History course prevented them and their students from exploring in any depth the main events and documents of US history. Scholars of teaching and learning in history, and history teachers themselves, felt that the AP course provided too little guidance about what might be on the AP exam, causing them to rush their students in a quick march through a list of historical events. There were too few opportunities to understand the “why” of US history, and or to make its deeper meanings come alive to students…

Many of the comments we have heard about the framework reflect either a misunderstanding of US history or a very limited faith in history teachers’ command of their subject matter. The Curriculum Framework was written by and for AP teachers—individuals who were already experts in US history and its teaching. Based on feedback from other AP teachers outside the Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee, we did not think it necessary to specifically identify Martin Luther King, Jr, among the post-war “civil rights activists” mentioned in the framework. Any United States History course would of course include King as well as other major figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Dwight Eisenhower. These and many other figures of US history did not appear in the previous AP framework, either, yet teachers have always understood the need to teach them. Critics who believe we have omitted them from the course are misunderstanding our document, and we request that they examine the AP Practice Exam as evidence of our determination that AP students must be exposed to a rich and inclusive body of historical knowledge.

American politics is out of balance. On the right we have ideologues who see everything as a threat to their carefully crafted vision of the nation. That might be okay if it were balanced on the left with a bunch of ideologues who see everything as a threat to their carefully crafted vision of the nation. But the right is not so balanced. Instead, it is “balanced” by practical centrism. As a result of that, we run into these problems all the time where basic knowledge gained from science and other disciplines is attacked as bias precisely because it isn’t biased.


It is also possible that Larry Krieger is just using right wing outrage. As I noted above, he is a writer of test preparation material and he seems to own the company Insider Test Prep. So he could see the changes as threatening. On the other hand, nothing is so good for writers of educational materials as changes in standards. It allows used books to become far less valuable, thus increasing sales of new books. So, as Newsweek would tell you, “Who can possibly say?”

Deported Children Often Killed Within Days

Isaias SosaLike thousands of other undocumented Honduran children deported after having journeyed unaccompanied to the US, Sosa faces perilous conditions in the violent neighborhood from which he sought to escape.

“There are many youngsters who only three days after they’ve been deported are killed, shot by a firearm,” said Hector Hernandez, who runs the morgue in San Pedro Sula. “They return just to die.”

At least five, perhaps as many as 10, of the 42 children slain here since February had been recently deported from the US, Hernandez said…

In one case, a teenage boy was shot to death hours after arriving in San Pedro Sula on a deportation flight, according to the boy’s cousin, who refused to identify himself or the boy to The Times for fear of reprisal from neighborhood gangs.

—Cindy Carcamo
In Honduras, US Deportees Seek to Journey North Again
H/T: Charlie Pierce

SNL Bans Critical to Shows Problems

Sinead O'ConnorI’m not proud. Last night I saw the link and I clicked, 15 People Who Have Been Banned from SNL. And I learned a few things from the article. The most basic thing is that Saturday Night Live has this ridiculous thing about banning entertainers for life. I don’t know what this is about. It would seem that Lorne Michaels is a megalomaniac who thinks he is doing something more important than producing a banal comedy show. Regardless, many of the reasons for bans are petty.

The best example of this is Elvis Costello’s appearance on the show in 1977. This was right before his first album My Aim Is True was released in the United States. His record company wanted him to perform “Less than Zero.” That was the first single off the album in the UK. But the song is about the British fascist Oswald Mosley—a subject that wasn’t of particular interest to an American audience. Costello wanted to do “Radio Radio.” So on SNL, he started “Less Than Zero,” stopped the band and then did “Radio Radio.”

Why exactly this got Costello banned is not clear. I think there are two aspects of it. One is that Michaels is a corporate lackey. Another is that he hates it when anything happens that wasn’t approved His Mediocreness. The ban stayed in effect for 12 years, but was eventually lifted. According to Wikipedia, Costello was “one of only three people to have their ban from SNL lifted.” To my mind, this is kind of like a bookstore deciding to lift its ban on Stephen King and start selling his books. There are other such cases where SNL is punching much too high: Milton Berle, Frank Zappa, and Martin Lawrence, to name a few.

Another person banned was Sinead O’Connor. In 1992, the young singer-songwriter made a protest against child abuse in the Catholic Church. She ended her a cappella version of “War” by tearing a picture of Pope John Paul II. She was banned, apparently because the only thing worse than the Church covering for pedophilia among priests is talking about it. In retrospect, O’Connor looks like an oracle and SNL looks just like the purveyor of lukewarm inoffensive comedy that they have consistently been for the past four decades.

The whole thing reminds me of Tim Minchin’s foul mouthed, “The Pope Song.”

If you find me more offensive than the possibility
That the Pope protected priests when they were getting fucking fiddly
Then listen to me mother fucker this here is a fact:
You are just as morally misguided as the mother fucking,
nbsp;power hungry, self aggrandizing
nbsp;nbsp;bigot in the stupid fucking hat.

Good comedy requires taking a stand and SNL has pretty much never done that. The original head writer, Michael O’Donoghue originally left the show because the comedy was too staid and safe. He later said of the show, “It’s like watching old men die.”

But I believe the article was wrong about Charles Grodin getting banned. It says:

Before he was a political television commentator, Charles Grodin was a comedian and actor who pissed off more than a few people during his October 29, 1977, hosting gig on <i>Saturday Night Live</i>. Grodin ad-libbed much of his performance, and not well, leading up to an incident during a sketch where Grodin broke character and caused a stir.

I know the episode they are talking about, and it is one of the best ever. Grodin played an amiable buffoon. The idea for the show was that he was totally unprepared because he spent the week sightseeing and buying the cast members presents. For example, in a sketch with The Killer Bees, Grodin supposedly broke character asking if the bees were supposed to be actual bees or men dressed up as bees. Another part of the show was that John Belushi was really angry with Grodin for his lack of professionalism. Now, there could have been something behind this. But Grodin did exactly the same character when on The Tonight Show.

Regardless, before I read the article, I had a low opinion of the show. Now that opinion has slipped even lower. Saturday Night Live is truly the Sinbad of sketch comedy. Sinbad, of course, being the amusing but totally inoffensive comedian who has never been banned from SNL.

Can We Acknowledge Our Shared Humanity?

Palestinian Father with Dead Child

This image was posted on Google+ last night by Forever Palestine. I have no context for it. I assume it is a father kissing his dead daughter before he buries her. It is a heartbreaking image.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m highly sympathetic toward the Palestinians. But I don’t particularly take sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is a mess. I think lowly of the belligerents on both sides. But it is the Palestinians who are dying in such large numbers. And I don’t think that takes away from what Israeli civilians are going through. The random rocket fire does create terror, and for the people harmed or killed, it doesn’t matter what the numbers are.

But this image reminds me of Benjamin Netanyahu’s comment on CNN that Hamas “use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead, the better.” Undoubtedly, the corpses do have a PR value. But the statement is entirely typical of war propaganda: dehumanize the enemy. I think you can say that Hamas’ actions are shortsighted. (You can say the same thing about Israel’s actions.) But you can’t say that Hamas doesn’t love its children.

Another problem is that Americans tend to make assumptions about Hamas that are not valid. While the group does use terrorism as a tactic, the group is a lot more than that. Treating the group as a monolith is a mistake. Another false assumption is to equate Hamas with the people of Gaza. And blanket statements like Netanyahu’s only reinforce these false assumptions, which is probably why they are made.

Would it be so hard for us all to agree that all the peoples of the world value life? Or at least that we all love our children? This seems the very least we can do. But the dehumanization of the enemy is very important in allowing the killing to continue. And I don’t expect either side to acknowledge the humanity of the other any time soon. Meanwhile, the anguished man in the photograph is real. The child is dead. And regardless of PR or ideology or property right, this is wrong.

Ogden Nash

Ogden NashOn this day in 1902, the great poet Ogden Nash was born. In general, poetry is hard on readers. It takes greater concentration than we are used to giving. But Nash found an audience quickly because he was so clever and funny. His poems often included made up word puns and unusual pronunciations. He also worked as a librettist for a couple of Broadway musicals.

His father had an import-export business, so the family moved around a lot. He was born in New York, but chose to live almost his whole adult life in Baltimore. Of this fact, he wrote, “I could have loved New York had I not loved Balti-more.” Other that this clever line, I can’t really understand choosing to live in Baltimore. But I guess that was just one of the things that made Nash special.

Here is Nash’s response to Dorothy Parker’s, “Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses.” He wrote:

A girl who is bespectacled
She may not get her nectacled
But safety pins and bassinets
Await the girl who fassinets.

And here is his poem (part of a series about animals), “The Panther”:

The panther is like a leopard,
Except it hasn’t been peppered.
Should you behold a panther crouch,
Prepare to say Ouch.
Better yet, if called by a panther,
Don’t anther.

It’s all very playful and fun stuff—well worth spending some time with. And here is one of his songs, “Speak Low” with music by Kurt Weill:

Happy birthday Ogden Nash!