A recent move by the Oklahoma State Legislature to ban the United States History Advanced Placement course and exam (APUSH) has been met with equal measures of praise and derision.
On the one hand, many conservatives criticize the revisionist tendencies of the course, which presents the views of authors like Howard Zinn instead of more traditional understandings of America as an exceptional country tasked with an important historical mission. Meanwhile, many liberal critics see the ban as the death knell for Oklahoma’s less-than-stellar education system; they argue that America has a dark past worthy of investigation.
Given recent debates about Common Core, the scuffle over antagonism should be nothing new. But this AP test isn’t the Common Core. It’s not mandatory, and, in fact, it’s only intended for top-ranking students.
This issue does have something in common (pun intended) with Common Core, however. These debates intimate the need for deregulation of education, and a greater need for academic freedom at the local and state level.
I took the APUSH exam when I was a senior in high school. It did not make me any less conservative per se. I accept that the United States has done horrible things: the Trail of Tears, the decision to conquer and subjugate other peoples, and Japanese internment to name a few. I think most of the Founders were deists or lukewarm Christians with more interest in classical philosophy and Enlightenment principles than deeply-held faith.
But that being said, I also think America has provided her citizens with amazing material comforts, that she has enhanced social mobility, and demonstrated the possibility of bringing together diverse cultures and peoples. History is complicated; it can’t be reduced to one individual event, and it’s impossible to argue that any civilization was entirely “good” or “bad,” a point Rod Dreher makes quite eloquently in a recent piece on the Crusades.
In some sense, history may always be propaganda. Yes, certain events occurred and we can analyze them, but some interpretations have no merit whatsoever, because more often than not, the truth exists between the two extremes. The neat narratives we present can’t capture the full complexities of existence. Yes, America brought democracy and Western cultural values to native peoples. Yes, those values have in some sense allowed for a “better” life. And yes, it is also true that our predecessors are guilty of intense racism and immense violence.
Capturing that scope in a national curriculum is nearly impossible. Ultimately, the teacher decides what precisely to teach and how exactly to teach it. Decisions are made at the classroom level.
Shouldn’t we be empowering our teachers, then? Obviously there must be standards. Racism shouldn’t be taught in our schools any more than should a positive view of National Socialism. I think even Evolution should be taught as primary scientific theory, but in general the classroom should be left up to those mostly closely dealing with the problems: local council people, administrators, and teachers.
Our teachers feel beaten down by a system holding them captive to rubrics, lesson plans, and tests. And while some structure is needed to run a classroom well, too much stifles all those involved, and can rob teachers of their passion, the students of their potential, and the curriculum of its accuracy. Not all narratives have equal weight, but we owe the next generation a greater breadth of emphasis so that they may learn the hardest truth: Nothing is simple, and facts, while important, come pre-wrapped in rhetorical packaging.