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:

NYTenement-1890-JacobRiis

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.

Afterword

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?”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

7 thoughts on “Conservatives Unhappy About History—Insist That Nicer Narratives Be Taught

  1. But that’s history, or how history is practiced in the academic world.

    I finally finished my BA a fe years back, because people told me to (finishing a BA at 40 does not exactly supersize your job opportunities) and I took classes in both the history and political science departments. The history classes were highly political. The political science classes were highly about history.

    What do I mean by that? Well, most people studying political science intend to work in the actual living breathing world. Most people studying history intend to work in universities. A political science graduate might work for a charitable foundation, or a company looking to invest in some country, or the CIA or whatever. In most cases (not the CIA) employers want political science people to explain just what the hell is happening and the history behind it. If you hire a political science major to tell you what’s going on in Egypt, you want to know about colonialism and Nasser and the role of US military aid and all that stuff. You don’t especially care what the graduate’s political views are; you want data about what’s going on in Egypt. So political science courses inevitably involve a good deal of history.

    History courses sort of pick and choose which history they want to include and which they don’t. I had one of my history courses, with the dean of history at my institution, a published author of unreadable books, where I was asked to describe how Black Americans in the 1930s should have reacted vis-a-vis Communism. Should they have all become Communists? My response was that certainly the Communist Party in the 1930s gave more of a shit about Black Americans than any other political party I’m aware of, but we know that there was a teensy weeny little bit of anti-Communist sentiment later, and Hoover bent over backwards to try and paint the civil rights movement as Communist, so I can’t say that joining up with Communists would have been the magic pill for helping Black Americans in the 1930s. Maybe, maybe not.

    Wow, did I get reamed a new one. “Obviously, you have never studied history before,” the dean of history told me. He wanted students to love the 1930s Communist party (I think he knew people who got fucked in the McCarthy period), and that was that. If you want to study history at this school and intern for this guy for a few years before getting a professorship there or elsewhere, subscribe wholeheartedly to the notion that American Blacks in the 1930s should have been Communists. (And maybe they should have; I’m willing to entertain the notion, and I’m been half-Communist for a few decades now.)

    My point, of course, isn’t to scream about “liberal bias in the schools!” This was a tiny community college with radical roots; I went to a large private college in Los Angeles where my history classes worshipped at the throne of Kissinger. I’ve no doubt they are more common.

    My point is that history, as an academic discipline, isn’t about history. It’s not instructors marching you into newspaper archives and poring over nice-smelling old stuff, saying, “look, students, this is fun!” It’s strictly a political fight. Probably has been for quite a long time.

    • I think that like all disciplines, there are core things that represent the state of knowledge. But there is no doubt that the closer in time and place of an event, the more it is colored by ideology. But I think there is a lot of consensus on how it is, for example, that the Nazis came to power. Sadly, for most conservatives, even seeing our country’s founding with any objectivity is impossible. They’ve turned the founding fathers (Except Thomas Paine!) into demigods.

      Consensus doesn’t mean truth, of course. Dean Baker has a good article today, The Federal Reserve Board Responds to Bankers. In it, he talks about how all the mainstream economists were just certain that inflation was going to take off in the late 1990s because Alan Greenspan refused to raise interest rates. It was exactly because Greenspan was a freak, well outside the mainstream, that he was right in this case. (He was, of course, wrong about almost everything else.)

      The real question is where we are going to draw the line at politicization. In the Newsweek interview, Krieger really does tip his hand. Regardless, it is one thing to note that every person has biases (there are left and right wing history teachers) and another to claim that every climate scientist in the world is part of a conspiracy. I suppose what Krieger ought to be asking is whether he agrees with roughly half the questions on the test. If he does, then I think the test should be fine as far as he’s concerned.

      Your comment about political science is very interesting. When I was younger, I asked, “What is political science?” And I was told that it was basically history. Now my perception of PS is that it is all statistics, but that’s just because a bunch of research I’m doing is focused that way. I think as a field, PS is pretty broad and generalizing about it gets into the blind men and the elephant problem. I do, however, think it is more science than humanity.

  2. @JMF
    I have a history degree from Arizona State. I originally wanted to study poli sci, but the course catalog heavily tilted toward the American electoral process. I was a few years in when they started offering majors in international relations. I found history to be a better fit for my interests, and focused mostly on antiquities. I used to get the “You must want to be a history teacher.” question often. Even if I did, schools here won’t hire you unless you also coach a sport. Or, to rephrase, schools here barely pretend to care about teaching history, but would like to hire a coach and need a place for him to sit during the regular instruction period.
    @Frank
    You are getting at something that really bothers me, and maybe I’m just letting my emotions distract me from the unintended consequences. That is, what is the point of being at all conciliatory or even polite to conservatives anymore? There is never going to be another ‘Tip & Ronnie’ moment again. Barack Obama, to the horror of many liberals, has offered them chained CPI, a soft pardon of the Bush torture regime, and one for Wall Street. And for what? So old white jagoffs in colonial cosplay can piss and moan about their ‘blind rage’ and ‘wanting their country back’? Fuck these people!
    I can see why the powerless and dispossesed in America think voting doesn’t help. Hell, I flip open the voter information book I got in the mail and look at all the Republicans in my district who are running unopposed by Democrats. You can’t make the right hate liberals more. That engine is revving as high as it can. Is there some magic center that would be offended?

    • I agree with you, but I think it is only worse than before–not distinctly different. At least that’s true from Reagan on. I mean, Tip and Ronnie got along personally, but Tip did almost nothing but yield to Ronnie on the policy front. And the right wing reaction to Clinton was almost exactly the same as it has been to Obama. The only thing is that the Republicans have gotten better at their political Total War.

      My position has long been that if Democrats are going to be called socialists no matter what they do, they might as well push liberal policy. I mean, nothing Obama has done would have caused much of a stir if it had been done by President McCain. Pretty much all of Obama’s actual policies were thing that McCain supported when running for president. How about a little liberalism from America’s “liberal” party? Is that asking so much?

      And no: there is absolutely nothing the Democrats can do that would move the Republicans. And Democrats moving toward the Republicans only makes the extreme nature of Republican policy seem more reasonable. Current Republican policy is that the corporate tax rate should be reduced to 25%. Obama supports 28%. Socialism! If Obama supported 25%, the Republicans would say it ought to be 15% and that 25% was Socialism! And there is no lower bound. I could easily see Republicans supporting a negative corporate income tax. And anything else would, of course, be Socialism!

      (For the record, I think we should get rid of the corporate income tax; it brings in little money. We should replace it with a tax on dividends or something along those lines–something that is harder to avoid.)

    • @Lawrence — That’s sad about history teachers in Arizona, but if James Loewen is to be believed it’s true everywhere. And largely because history is by its nature political and controversial, hence history curriculum is so watered down to avoid offense that a gym teacher could recite it.

      Everyone has “this teacher changed my life” stories but one that did so for me was a teacher in antiquities. He was only at my school for a year; students found him silly and uncool (I liked him a lot.) He was adamant about taking people from the past seriously, not assuming we are smarter because we have more gizmos. One day we saw a photo of an ancient burial site complete with ceremonial, probably religious stuff. My classmates, naturally, were, “ooh, skeleton.” I thought “that man died with absolute surety that his religion would usher him into the afterlife” and POOF! That was it. The religion I’d had certainty about from childhood was now in question. My immortal soul has never recovered!

      • I think you’ve got a song there, “Poof Went My Immortal Soul.” Or a movie, “I Was a Teenage Heretic.” Regardless, I’ll pray for you the next time I pray. You’re doomed!

  3. “Benjamin Franklin isn’t even mentioned in the outline …” Well, maybe he isn’t because that would mean to say he was a member of the hell-fire club and had Luciferian ideas about religion? That he lived in a -then very scandalous by that time’s standards- menages a trois? That the founders of the US were slave holders but some had children with their slaves, yet that off-spring is today just as disadvantaged as, say, the child of a Bush or Kennedy needs less Affirmative Action than others, to put it mildly? As for “Conditions like those shown in the image contributed most directly to which of the following?” The correct answer is,” – the correct answer is not “Progressive bla-bla-bla” – there’s no CAUSATION in history, only surmise. The correct answer, for causalities sake would e.g. be: “higher child mortality rates, typhus, tuberculosis, early confrontation with sexuality, depression, alcohol abuse” – you name it, “we have it”. But Progressivism? Ts. Ts.

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