Choose your own history

A couple of recent items about teaching social sciences kind of struck me, so I’m sharing them with you.

First, Talking Points Memo has a piece about the former teacher-turned-crusader who is leading the right-wing backlash to the new AP U.S. History curriculum:

This can largely be traced to one man: Retired history teacher Larry Krieger, has been at the forefront of the fight against the College Board’s new framework for about a year. After Krieger criticized the framework, the College Board publicly defended the changes and recently clarified the instructions for teachers in hopes of mollifying critics. That doesn’t appear to be enough for Krieger.

“They did not actually change so much as one word,” Krieger told TPM. “I had hoped that the College Board would be responsive to the growing outcry for changes.”

Krieger started his campaign against the new exam last September after he a realized that the College Board’s revision was lengthier than he had imagined. Krieger, a former AP U.S. History teacher from North Carolina who now works as a tutor and has written test prep books for AP exams, sat down to examine the new framework since he figured he might have to revise his books.

Krieger’s objection, if you haven’t already guessed, is that the new curriculum doesn’t suitably propagandize teach the students that America is Exceptional:

Krieger and other critics have complained that the course places too much emphasis on topics like slavery and the Japanese internment camps during World War II. Krieger said that he believes students need to learn about these “areas where we’ve fallen short of our ideals,” but that he is asking for “a balanced presentation.”

He is particularly concerned that “the concept of American exceptionalism has been deliberately scrubbed out of this document.”

People who obsess about whether we’re teaching children enough about America’s innate greatness need to explain how educating generations of kids to believe that America Is The Best prepares them to absorb and function in a world where kids in every other country are “learning” exactly the same thing about their own countries. They can’t all be right, after all. Wouldn’t it be better to teach America’s historical role in the world for better and for worse? Then when these kids are ready to start running the country, they might stop making the same fundamental mistakes that we’ve been making for the last half-century plus, mistakes that are mostly rooted in the idea that America is Exceptional and therefore has the right to run roughshod over the rest of the planet.

But even more than that, it would be nice if people who want to formulate a critique of a U.S. History curriculum knew something about the actual, not mythologized, history of the United States:

“Consider for a moment, from the beginning to President Obama’s recent declaration of why we had to wipe out ISIS, why do we send American boys and women into harm’s way to pay any price, bear any burden? We do that because they are the defenders of liberty and freedom — in short, our core values,” he said of American exceptionalism. “And so to scrub that out of the American narrative is a real egregious injustice.”

“People who call themselves liberals haven’t really understood what … American exceptionalism means, and why it is so extremely important that it be taught to our kids,” he said. “Because what unites us as a people — we’re not united by ethnic differences, religious differences, we’re united by our core values.”

I’m all for teaching kids about America’s core values, and having actually read the curriculum it’s not at all clear to me how people like Larry Krieger imagine the students aren’t still going to learn that stuff. But it seems to me that there’s also a clear necessity to teach children that America’s core values are aspirational, not actual, and that America has faced considerable challenges in living up to them. There’s nothing wrong with learning that your country was founded on some impressive principles, but there’s also nothing wrong with learning your country’s actual history, not the filtered “America Is Awesome” version.

Needless to say, I remain unconvinced that these changes aren’t all for the better:

According to Scott Casper, history professor and Dean of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, this debate isn’t exactly new.

Casper, who also edits the “Textbooks and Teaching” section of the Journal of American History, said the College Board’s new framework reflects a shift that’s occurred over the past few decades in American history education. He said that colleges and high schools have been placing more emphasis on “historical thinking skills” and primary source documents and have moved away from memorization.

And there’s also been a shift in topics covered by U.S. history classes. Casper said historians and schools are now incorporating the stories of women, African-Americans and immigrants to a greater extent.

All of these changes — incorporating a more diverse set of stories, learning critical historical thinking skills as opposed to rote memorization of names and dates, using primary sources wherever possible — are good things, unequivocally.

The second item is a short one that I can almost completely outsource to Charles Pierce:

One of my favorite replies to Christianists who want to sneak their personal Jeebus into the public school curriculum by including Him in a course on “The Bible As Literature” or as part of a course on “World Religions” is to say, “I think those are splendid ideas. Good luck, by the way, when it comes to that take-home unit on the Koran. I’ll just be lying under this bed over here.”

He’s talking about a story from Jenison, Michigan, where high school students taking a World History course were asked to produce pamphlets describing five major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism). The pamphlets were supposed to be understandable to a third-grade audience. Some parent got a look at this assignment and somehow deduced that the schools were making third graders pray toward Mecca all day, and you can figure out where things went from there. To its credit, the district has (so far, to my knowledge) refused to eliminate the assignment (though they plan to “clarify” its wording), but Pierce is right; most attempts to incorporate the study of religions into a public school curriculum (which is a great idea in principle) are going to lead to controversy as soon as some parents realize that their kids are expected to learn about Islam, or really anything other than Christianity. Much better to teach a world history class that pretends those other religions never existed, right?

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