Pushing American History as a Long Tale of Oppression

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on August 19th, 2014.

The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution on August 8 criticizing the College Board’s new Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) course and exam. The RNC called for the College Board to “delay the implementation” of APUSH for one year and convene a committee to draft a new framework “consistent with” the traditional mission of the course, state history standards, and the United States’ “true history.”

The resolution quickly caught the attention of the left-of-center media. MSNBC leaned in; The Daily Beast growled; Right Wing Watch glared; TalkingPointsMemo repeated; and Wonkette sassed. A good time was had by all. Doktor Zoom’s report on Wonkette epitomized the spirit of the left’s response. The good Doktor explained that in the eyes of the RNC, the new “exam framework doesn’t even say that America is the Bestest, Freest, Most Wonderfullest Republic that ever existed in the world, and it also completely fails to say that Jesus handed the Constitution to George Washington.”  Newsweek, on the other hand, took the trouble to explain the opposition to APUSH—though its headline, “What’s Driving Conservatives Mad about the New AP History Course,” assumes that the opposition is primarily conservative.

Making sure that the Advanced Placement U.S. History course is reasonably comprehensive, fair-minded, and accurate ought to concern people across the political spectrum, not just conservatives.  However, the decision by the Republican National Committee to weigh in with a resolution “condemning” APUSH (as the headline in Education Week put it) ensures that partisans of all sorts will pile in.

Why We Should Delay the New APUSH

In truth, I would rather see this matter resolved at the level of good historical scholarship.  Is the new APUSH a good history course?  Does it present a thorough and systematic account of the developments that brought our nation into being?  Does it trace the conflicts, recognize the principal persons, grapple with the ideas, and come to terms with the triumphs and failures of the American experiment in self-government?  Does it give a clear picture of the profound economic changes that led from us from being a collection of mainly agrarian colonies on the east coast to the world’s most prosperous nation?  Does it teach students to be mindful readers of history—students who are capable of reading original documents with unbiased eyes, and who are likewise capable of catching the ideological purposes to which history is often put?

Those are questions in which the new APUSH, as I read it, doesn’t fare very well.  It seems to be an American history curriculum that views the European settlement of North America as mainly an act of dispossession of the native peoples followed by many further acts of oppression.  It tells a story beginning with pre-contact Native Americans in 1491 that is overwhelmingly materialist.  Food production, human labor, environmental factors, population movement, and so on count heavily; but ideas, beliefs, and aspirations play a secondary role, or in some cases no role at all.  The development of the nation as having a genuine common culture, an order based on evolving principles of law, and enriched with religious aspiration is left to the margins or pushed off stage.

But I don’t wish to claim a final word on such matters.  History standards and curricula, and the textbooks and documents used to teach courses such as APUSH are complicated things.  And it would be best if we heard from a broad spectrum of American historians who have had the chance to read the APUSH materials carefully.

In that light, the RNC’s call for a year-long delay strikes me as a very good idea.

Some of the other critics of APUSH have done a good job in noticing particular things—especially people—that APUSH leaves out.  John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, is missing.  Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison have faded into APUSH obscurity.  Even the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. is mysteriously absent.  We can be sure that none of these figures was overlooked by accident.  They are left out because they do not fit the story that the architects of APUSH want to tell.

That story is fairly easy to grasp:  the history of the United States is a history of expropriation, imposed suffering, forced labor, exploitation, environmental heedlessness, class oppression, racism, sexism, and the rule of the privileged few over everyone else.  These themes can be magnified in the hands of teachers who are convinced that they amount to the whole story, or they can be diminished a bit by teachers who have reservations, but they are the chief substance of the new APUSH. There’s really no way around them.

The University Scene

This is not to say that APUSH is drastically out of step with what college history professors now teach.  Two years ago the National Association of Scholars published a study of 85 freshman history courses taught at Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin.  In Recasting History:  Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History? we reported that 50 percent of the teachers of these American history courses at Texas A&M devoted half or more of the content of their courses to race, gender, and class, and 78 percent of their counterparts at UT Austin did the same.  Moreover, the younger portion of these faculty members were overwhelmingly self-declared specialists in race, gender, class history.  Among those who received their Ph.Ds in the 1990s or later, 90 percent of the Texas A&M historians were race, class, gender specialists; and among the UT Austin cohort, 83 percent were.

Recasting History provoked a furious response from the American Historical Association and many other apologists for the “new” social history.  Few, if any, denied the accuracy of our data or the substance of our analysis.  Rather, we were taken to task for our finding fault with something that these historians now regard as a positive good.  Teachingagainst the old “pieties” of American exceptionalism is regarded in these quarters as a combination of joy and duty, and emphasizing the story of America as a saga of unending oppression is seen as nothing but the plain truth.

In that light, APUSH is likely to find many supporters among academic historians.  And academic historians who are skeptical about the APUSH approach have become a beleaguered minority.  As this battle over APUSH proceeds, the critics of APUSH shouldn’t count on robust support from university history departments.  By and large they are the source of the problem, not the last redoubt of sensible scholarship.

Apprentice Skeptics

APUSH also sets out, quite emphatically, to turn students into “apprentice historians.”  This has a certain cart-before-the-horse quality.  How can a student acquire the sensibility and tools of a historian without first gaining a fairly full grasp of historical narrative?  We generally need a context before we can plunge deeper into analysis and re-consideration.  The APUSH emphasis on making students into “apprentice historians” is, I suspect, a roundabout way of expressing the goal of making students into hardened skeptics toward anything that suggests American exceptionalism.  If the students are “apprenticed” to the preferences of politically progressive historians, they will quickly get the idea that American exceptionalism is nothing but the lies and excuses the rich and the powerful use to cover up their depredations.

Again, I don’t insist this is the last word on what APUSH is up to.  The whole thing is put in such opaque ways that it is hard to tell for sure.  But surely we would do better to wait until we have heard from historians who were not part of the College Board team that created APUSH.

So again, the RNC’s call for a year-long delay seems like a constructive suggestion.

Nash vs. Cheney Revisited

Those whose memories extend back to the 1990s will no doubt recall that we have been through something like this before. In 1992, Congress appointed the National Council on Education Standards (NCES), a project approved by President George H.W. Bush, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education.  NCES was co-chaired by Charlotte Crabtree and Gary Nash, though in the ensuing controversy it became mainly associated with Professor Nash.  The Standards were released in November 1994 and immediately set off a furor; Lynne Cheney, who had been head of the National Endowment for the Humanities when the project started, repudiated the results.  She began an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, “Imagine an outline for the teaching of American history in which George Washington makes only a fleeting appearance and is never described as our first president. Or in which the foundings of the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women are considered noteworthy events, but the first gathering of the U.S. Congress is not.”

The Nash-led NCES Standards began a subject of anguished national debate which culminated in the publication in 1996 of a heavily revised version of the standards.  Nash wrote a book, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (1997), recounting with considerable bitterness his showdown with Cheney.  As the historian Sean Wilentz saw it, the whole thing was about the effort of professional historians to incorporate into American schools the emphasis on “social history” that had come to dominate the field since the 1960s.  Wilentz thought Nash and his collaborators “naïve” in thinking they could do this without provoking a “political response.”

To a fair extent, the APUSH controversy is Gary Nash 2.0.  Many historians were disappointed that the 1994 National History Standards survived only in compromised form.  They wanted the new “social history” straight up.  And they understood that the “social history” Nash had fought for wasn’t just a matter of including the stories of ordinary people who were ignored by previous forms of history writing.  “Social history” is code for history that deconstructs the ideals and the “myths” of the nation.  The Founders are put in their place as patrician slave-owners or propertied men who benefited from other oppressive privileges.  “Manifest Destiny” was a slogan used by rapacious colonizers to justify genocide.  The “Wild West” wasn’t “tamed” but plundered.  Every story “valorized” by older historians had to be unwoven and discredited by the new history.

The Zinnification of American History?

In its most unabashed and vulgar form, the new history is what Howard Zinn served up in his ever-popular A People’s History of the United States.  Nash and his collaborators on the National History Standards were several steps up from Zinn, but aboard the same ideological escalator.

The new APUSH is somewhere in this vicinity as well, but the new tactic seems to be to avoid head-on challenges to the mythos of American history—all the people and events that made us foolishly think America was different and special—and focus instead on telling the alternative story of racism, despoliation, and oppression.

Thus, APUSH doesn’t attempt to debunk the American Founding.  It just pushes it aside.

I should add that when I refer to the “mythos” of American history, I don’t mean a collection of falsehood, noble lies, or one-sided distortions.  When we anthropologists speak of mythos, we mean the essential truths that form the vital core of a people’s shared identity and without which we dissolve into disparate parts.  The American Founding is part of our mythos—maybe the most important part, but definitely not the whole.  And a mythos is by no means a story compounded of self-glorifications, as Doktor Zoom at Wonkette seems to think (“America is the Bestest, Freest, Most Wonderfullest Republic that ever existed in the world”).  It is a story that includes failures, ignominies, and tragedies, as well as hard-won triumphs, and it has plenty of room for ambiguities in between—of events like the Civil War that are both triumph and tragedy.

The Challenge

Judging by the responses to the RNC resolution, we are in for a season of slippery misrepresentation.  Critics of APUSH will be caricatured by the left as cultural ignoramuses in search of something to get mad about.  And the College Board’s protests of innocence will be taken at face value.  Already the Daily Beast has blandly reported that College Board’s explanation that the new APUSH exam is meant to be “more flexible” than the old one and that the APUSH framework “has not changed” since 2012.

The idea that the new test will be more “flexible” may be a way of saying that in the new test “facts” matter less than facility in “interpreting” material into the right ideological silos.  But much remains to be seen on that score.  What we have so far is the detailed standards and only a model test.  As for APUSH not having changed since 2012, that’s an impressive bit of stagecraft.  Yes, the current APUSH was finished in 2012, but it was released so quietly that virtually no one outside the charmed circle of APUSH advocates knew about it.  Only in the last few months with the actual rollout of the course scheduled for this fall has APUSH come to public notice.

My guess is the College Board was well aware of what happened in 1994 when the Gary Nash version of National History Standards was released and provoked immediate and harsh pushback.  To avoid that, the College Board attempted a stealth rollout.  That tactic has clearly failed, so it is on to the next tactic, which consists of well-choreographed displays of wounded innocence performed to the tub-thumping music of MSNBC and TalkingPointsMemo.

None of this would matter if APUSH was some obscure academic course, but it is in fact the gateway course on American history for most of America’s most talented high school students.  As the RNC noted, nearly half a million high school students take it each year.  And to that I would add that for many of those students, APUSH will be the last course surveying American history they will ever take.  The partisan view of American history it presents is likely to leave some lasting impressions.  And worse still, the absence of a more abiding vision of American aspiration is likely to leave a lasting emptiness.

Image: Public Domain

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