George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher, famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the aftermath of the mass murders of World War II, several state legislatures, including Illinois, voted to teach about the Holocaust in public schools, in order to prevent a repetition.
Right now the lessons that history can teach have provoked a nationwide argument. The College Board, creators of the Advanced Placement history test for high school seniors who wish to get college credit, wrote a revised framework for their test last year. Conservatives are outraged. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution in August criticizing the AP US History curriculum (called APUSH) as “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” The Texas State Board of Education demanded that the College Board remove the “political bias” of APUSH.
This argument has exploded into a public dogfight in Colorado. In Jefferson County, the state’s second largest school district, three new members of the School Board wrote a manifesto of conservative objections to the new curriculum. They are unusually explicit about using history lessons for political purposes. “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”
The new AP curriculum is different from the way that American history has traditionally been taught. But any examination of older American history textbooks demonstrates clearly how our history was white-washed. Public school textbooks used in Texas were emphatic about savage Indians and lazy Negroes. Only gradually over the past decades has a more inclusive and a more accurate historical perspective been written into public school texts, and conservatives have been fighting it ever since. Many charter schools run by conservative or evangelical groups still use texts with racist messages.
The controversy over APUSH is the latest skirmish in a cultural war about how to teach our history. Here’s a classic example of the difference between the two sides. The original mover behind the conservative rejection of APUSH is Larry Krieger, a retired high school history teacher. He complained that he used to teach Manifest Destiny as “the belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technology across the continent,” but APUSH describes it as “built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.”
Those who developed the idea of Manifest Destiny in the middle of the 19th century, like the journalist John L. O’Sullivan, argued that God had given Americans the destiny to spread democracy across the continent. Advocates stressed the unique virtues of the American people. O’Sullivan looked forward to an “irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon emigration” pushing inferior Natives and Mexicans aside as whites moved west, and he defended the rights of southern states to maintain slavery. (Thanks to Gene Warren, Project Manager at Burlingame Family Health, for this reference.) Krieger, and the conservatives who follow him, want to teach an idealized version of Manifest Destiny, while APUSH offers a more realistic description of what its proponents really said and how it actually worked.
Conservatives are also upset that history teaching has evolved away from memorizing facts about great men to understanding concepts and critical thinking. The College Board wants to test understanding rather than memorization.
The powerful reaction of parents and students have drawn attention to Colorado and the desire to air-brush American history. Hundreds of students from six high schools in Jefferson County walked out in protest of the School Board’s decision. The interference of elected officials in curriculum questions provoked precisely the popular protest that conservatives want to edit out of American history.
The conservative effort to whitewash the history of American racism and to minimize the wave of civil disobedience which eventually overturned the Jim Crow system in North and South displays the current schizophrenia of the right. Conservative politicians have been proclaiming the illegitimacy of our government ever since Barack Obama was elected President. They have encouraged popular protests against the laws of the land, making a hero out of Cliven Bundy, until they discovered his racism. Yet they don’t want young minds to learn that protest, even illegal protest, can be a highly moral response to immoral authority. They want to preserve a myth of American moral purity, while reserving for themselves the right to dissent.
They are afraid of history.
I have been teaching history for 40 years. I doubt that history lessons have much effect on students’ political beliefs. More powerful are the ideologically driven actions of authorities, which provoke the very protests they want to erase from the historical record.
The facts about the Holocaust might teach young Americans valuable civic lessons about the disastrous consequences of racial prejudice in Europe. Conservatives fear that the facts about racial prejudice in our own country might teach young Americans to be critical of myths about America as a uniquely Godly country and to be critical of the policies that conservatives advocate.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 7, 2014