Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What History Should Kids Learn?

Hundreds of high school students in Jefferson County, Colorado, walked out of class on Tuesday protesting what they saw as an attempt to censor what they were being taught in their AP U.S. History course (APUSH). The school board in Jefferson County has recently taken a turn for the conservative with the election of three new board members including Julie Williams who seeks to establish a board committee to revew curriculum to ensure that the APUSH curriculum "promote[s] citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights" and don't "encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law."

The irony of this statement seems to be lost on Ms. Williams, seeing how the country she so admires was founded on civil disobedience (The Boston Tea Party, Declaration of Independence) by individuals that I believe most of us would consider patriots by any standard (The Founding Fathers). But before we get into all that, first a little, well, history.

Advanced Placement U.S History (APUSH) is one of those courses developed by the College Board (yes, the test people) to provide interested and able high school students with a college level course. Many colleges accept AP courses for college credit, so it can give kids a leg up on college work. All AP courses are undergoing revision, and the College Board announced the revisions to the APUSH framework last year. According to the College Board the revisions were based on the input of college professors and high school teachers who teach the subject. The chief thrust of the changes was to give the course "a more coherent structure based on the relationships among ideas." Responding to years of criticism that the APUSH framework focused on too much content with too litttle depth, the new framework is intended to provide teachers with "the flexibility across nine different periods of U.S. history to teach topics of their choice in depth."

From the time the new framework was announced, conservatives were incensed by what they saw as its "consistently negative view of American History." That last quote is from Larry Krieger, former history teacher and current cheer leader for the conservative right's attack on the new APUSH framework. In a Newsweek article, Krieger is variously described as "angry", aghast", and "horrified" at the new framework. What has him so worked up? Apparently the new framework fails to mention the story of George Washington and the cherry tree.

Well, perhaps that is a bit hyperbolic. Krieger does say that high school APUSH should be less like a college course and award more plaudits to the founding fathers, captains of industry and other conservative heroes. The liberal bias, he said, will turn students against large companies, corporations and wealthy Americans.

Krieger further complains that the framework shortchanges American exceptionalism and casts American greatness as not all that great. He is particularly "dispirited" that the framework's discussion of World War II, rather than focusing on the "courage and valor of the American soldier", turns its eyes on such little nasties as the internment of Japanese Americans, debates about race and segregration in the armed services, and the dropping of the atom bomb.

Perhaps Krieger is concerned that students will not develop a healthy respect for the wonders of the free market society because that free market society has been very, very good to Larry Krieger. Krieger has created a cottage industry of his own in "crash course" guides to AP tests, SAT tests and test preparation workshops. Is it possible that the new APUSH framework, with an emphasis on depth and critical thinking, may make Krieger's lucrative gaming the test, memorization approach to learning obsolete? (Full disclosure here: Larry Krieger and I worked together in the same school district for seven years. We were not close.)

It seems obvious to me that what really has made America great has been its ability to embrace many different viewpoints under one large tent. I see no advantage in trying to shield young people from the messiness that is U.S. history. In fact, that very messiness may well engage them.

I attended Benjamin Franklin Junior High School. Each day at the school started with the morning announcements, which always included a "Franklin Fact", highlighting the accomplishments of the school's namesake. You know, things like, "Franklin invented bifocals" and "Franklin established the first fire department in the U.S." Always up for a challenge, my compatriot in mischief, Bruce Ingraham, and I went to the library to look up some "Franklin Fact" we could submit. We read widely on the subject and learned a lot. One thing we discovered, to our delight, was that Franklin had fathered an illigitimate child. We submitted this tidbit as a "Franklin Fact." It never made it onto the announcements, but we enjoyed just imagining the look on Principal Dick's (yes, that was his name) face when he read it.

As the recent  potrayals of Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on Ken Burn's PBS show makes clear, greatness is still greatness, warts and all. So I would say to Larry Krieger and the school board in Jefferson County, Colorado, we must remember that in American history one man's "captain of industry" is another man's "robber baron." Our kids are smart enough to evaluate the merits of the argument themselves when provided with balanced information. After all, these AP History students will be voting in the next year or two.

Meanwhile the student protesters in Colorado may be getting the finest object lesson in democracy they could ever get, simply by walking out of their classroom and standing up for what they believe in. Now that is an act of patriotism in the best American tradition.