Opinion: Politics drives attack on AP U.S. History in statehouse

Ian Altman is chair of the English Department at Clarke Central High School in Athens. He is also the 2015 Clarke County STAR Teacher.

Last year, Altman won the Crystal Apple Distinguished Alumni Award from UGA. In 2013, he won the Kenneth S. Goodman “In Defense of Good Teaching” Award from the University of Arizona and, in 2012, the University of Chicago Outstanding Educator Award.

He last wrote for the blog on the charter school amendment. In this piece, Altman dissects the current ideological battle over the content of AP U.S. History.

By Ian Altman

Teacher Andy Dugger (standing) listens to presentation during his AP US History class at Central Gwinnett High School in Lawrenceville. Some Gwinnett County residents say APUSH promotes anti-American sentiments. The criticism in Gwinnett is part of a national debate. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Teacher Andy Dugger (standing) listens to presentation during his AP US History class at Central Gwinnett High School in Lawrenceville. Some Gwinnett County residents say APUSH promotes anti-American sentiments. The criticism in Gwinnett is part of a national debate. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Local school boards and state legislatures in Colorado, Oklahoma, and in Georgia have recently critiqued and tried to outlaw the Advanced Placement United States History curriculum framework, arguing that it presents a liberal view of U.S. history, does not properly honor the founding fathers or their legacy, and focuses instead on marginalized groups in a way that divides rather than unites us.

This is part of a larger trend of right-wing attempts to control learning to maintain a political advantage. My aim here is to explain the flaws in the critics’ understanding of the AP U.S. History curriculum, the critics’ problematic intellectual orientation, their end game, and why they will not succeed.

State Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, has said AP U.S. History “seems imbued with leftist, identity-group politics.” Imbued: that’s the kind of word to watch. It implies the curriculum does not merely contain voices from beyond the supposed mainstream of history, but those voices taint knowledge itself.

But the purpose of focusing on marginalized voices in history is to show the mainstream view has traditionally been exclusionary, biased with the privilege of power, which serves to divide us.  Those voices have always been with us, but muting them causes immense damage to all of us. We cannot understand that damage until we hear those marginalized voices.  Hence, to include them is to give a fuller, more accurate, less biased picture.

Of course Thomas Jefferson was a genius, the Declaration of Independence a masterpiece. But he was a man, not a god, and any discussion of his legacy should include Sally Hemings. Of course a study of the civil rights struggle should include the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. But to exclude Huey Newton and Bobby Seale would be to whitewash that time. If such complications in our history are controversial, that is because the truth is more troubling and indefinite than some would like it.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis of French Antisemitism notes several characteristic attitudes that apply here. Sartre describes the anti-Semite’s belief that the Jew can never truly possess the French language the way a “true” Frenchman can, even if his grammar and syntax are more correct and proper, because the very soil from which that language and Gallic nature grow can never spiritually belong to the Jew, whether or not he owns property deeds.

Sartre explains these attitudes as willfully chosen irrational beliefs based on mere passion, and distills them to a fundamental attitude of cowardice, of fear of oneself and of the very form of truth: a thing of “indefinite approximation.” This fear metastasizes in the desire to be “as definite as stone,” and to have only opinions that are innate, never acquired.

Analogous attitudes here motivate attempts to outlaw bilingual education, telling students that one of the most basic parts of themselves cannot be properly American. The same attitudes outlawed Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program, telling students their experiences and history as Americans are not worthy of study.

Similar attitudes cause the insistence the U.S. is a Christian nation, making any non-Christian citizen by definition an outsider, if not second class then at least second-rate. Following Sartre’s reasoning, such jingoistic attitudes find completion in the conviction that our history is a settled set of accepted facts, “as definite as stone” and never becoming more nuanced or complicated.  That is the intellectual ground on which the critics of AP U.S. History stand.  The ground was never solid, never quite definite, whether they realize it or not.

The U.S. always changes, and the only reasonable way to explain the current critique of a curriculum that reflects that change is as an attempt to mitigate the effects of the current changes. Chaining the study of U.S. history to a set of beliefs that diminish the legitimacy of marginalized voices only makes sense as an attempt to keep those voices marginalized.  But there is more to it than that.

The critics are certainly aware national demographic trends do not favor their privilege. Fixing the study of U.S. history, such that by a seeming natural law its contours cannot be changed, attempts to force the assimilation of the marginalized.

Thus, to be included in our deliberately constructed mainstream (for it is not natural or destined), so-called outsiders must conform to it, which means they must be culturally white and basically conservative in their values. Given our demographic direction, that will be the only way current conservatives can maintain the country the way they want it. That is their political purpose in making a political problem out of AP U.S. History.

Whatever damage they do in the short run, they will fail in the long run.  We cannot prevent change by controlling what students learn, because students have their own minds and will always see things in their own ways however we try to control them. Nor can we prevent it by predicting and then subjugating those students who will have the imagination, insight, and intelligence to see that something is missing from historical information.

Controlling history is a means to mitigate the erosion of the granite of American identity that was never there anyway. It is a way to feed a national, conservative obtuseness in the face of demographic and cultural change. In the long run, they are fighting an inherently lost cause, and it is in all our students’ best interests to expose the flaws in their thinking.

First, we must be unafraid to call out jingoism for what it is, and continue to insist our marginalized voices have always had a legitimate place in the study of history, that their marginalization has always been knowingly political, not natural. Second, our insistence on their inclusion must come from a place of respect rather than simple opposition. Teaching U.S. history must bring an expansion and diversification of vision, not an invasion.

We must give, not take.  My friend Curtis Acosta, who taught in the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson, began each class by reciting part of Luis Valdez’s poem “Pensamiento Serpentino,” appropriately bilingual, and it is in that spirit that we must approach this issue:

In Lak’ech

Tú eres mi otro yo   You are my other me

Si te hago daño a ti   If I do harm to you

Me hago daño a mi mismo. I do harm to myself.

Si te amo y respeto   If I love and respect you

Me amo y respeto yo.  I love and respect myself.

 

 

Reader Comments 0

83 comments
RealLurker
RealLurker

Right-wingers want History texts to slant to the right.  They want to hype conservative characters and ignore or denigrate liberal characters and ideas.

Left-wingers want History texts to slant to the left.  They want to hype liberal characters and ignore or denigrate conservative characters and ideas.


I think it is quite presumptuous to believe that you actually "Know" what history was, and that the inclusion or exclusion of certain facts or rumors is critical to the teaching of students.  There are many people who believe that Lincoln championed elimination of slavery from the beginning.  They have words written by Lincoln to back their claims.  There are people who believe that Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union with or without slavery.  They have words written by Lincoln to back their claims.  There is not a person alive who actually knows what Lincoln thought.  There can be many interpretations of a person's words and deeds.  Unless you only teach PURE facts(The date the Declaration of Independence was signed, etc.), there WILL be political biasing in the presentation of history.

Starik
Starik

@RealLurker Don't teach the kids what the correct version of history is.  Teach them how to analyze facts and create arguments. Grade the quality of the argument; there's plenty to argue about.

ClearThinkerUGA
ClearThinkerUGA

Ian is so much smarter that all of you right-wing nuts put together - you probably don't even understand what he wrote. I take the word of a star teacher over all of you rednecks. America is strong BECAUSE we are a nation of many races and religions that have learned to take the best of all cultures and blend them into the United States of America. Great job Ian!

MiltonMan
MiltonMan

@ClearThinkerUGA 


I will compare my two STEM degrees against this left-wing nutty teacher anytime of the day moron.

BearCasey
BearCasey

@MiltonMan @ClearThinkerUGA  Your post is crude and beneath the dignity of an exalted personage holding "two STEM degrees."  I'm petitioning your trade school to have your degrees revoked.  BTW-- you may examine my bona fides by referencing page 269 in the 1970-71 edition of Who's Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges.













OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@MiltonMan @ClearThinkerUGA 

What a ridiculous boast. What have you done with those degrees? done in the field of education since you're comparing yourself to this high school department chairman? And what do the STEM fields have to do with history in the first place?

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@bu2 @OriginalProf @MiltonMan @ClearThinkerUGA 

The issue is American history, not the history of a discipline. But it seems like a false dichotomy to me. American history should be known by STEM majors as well as everyone else...and that includes the slave-mistress of Thomas Jefferson, and the full history of the civil rights movement.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@bu2 @OriginalProf @MiltonMan @ClearThinkerUGA 

Lots. Literature has as its backdrop the current events of the time in which it was written, which affect the author indirectly if not directly. But in any case, the history to which Ian Altman is alluding is generally known American history. The case of Jefferson's slave-mistress is widely known; and many of us remember the civil rights movement and its other "foot soldiers" besides MLKing from newspapers, not history books.  This should be true for STEM majors as well as the rest of us.

duke14
duke14

I rest my case. One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of the irrational nonsense which passes for a history curriculum.

LogicalDude
LogicalDude

Doom: "Just more leftist gobbldeegewk"


Thank goodness you aren't in charge of education or selecting topics for study in history books, or any other books. :) 


Such anti-intellectualism shows a glaring mar in conservatives of today. AP students are expected to dig deeper into topics than just a look at the surface, which "regular" US history is evidently settling upon.  Why would anyone object to looking closer at subjects of history? 

The Doom
The Doom

Just more leftist gobbldeegewk. Seems to me the leftists are much more interested in divisive identity politics, including instilling identity politics into basic history, than they are in kids actually learning anything useful. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale? Seriously? 

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Doom Classical liberal 

To answer you seriously, the civil rights movement had two divergent strategies that caused a real split in the movement: the passive resistance used by MLKing and his followers, and the active resistance advocated by Newton, Searle, Hosea Williams, and Stokely Carmichael, among others.  That too is part of history.

Starik
Starik

@OriginalProf @Doom Classical liberal Hosea was a STEM graduate, by the way.  There was also a split in the movement between genuine heroes, like Hosea, and some others exemplified by others, some still active  like "Rev." Sharpton, who used the civil rights movement to gain money and power.

class80olddog
class80olddog

So how did Sally Hennings figure in the history of the U. S.  ? 

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Doom Classical liberal @OriginalProf 

Sources?  "An historian"?  Who?  Credentials? Possibly the younger brother AND Thomas Jefferson sired Sally Hemmings' children.  That sort of sharing also was common during slavery days.

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf @Astropig @redweather @class80olddog


I'm sorry,but as a married man that has been faithful to his wife for 31 years and counting,I find such behavior from a person in which so much faith is entrusted to be reprehensible.We'll just have to agree to disagree here.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@class80olddog 

She didn't.  Sally Hemmings did, as long-time slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson who bore several children to him.

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf @Doom Classical liberal


Even the Monticello.org web site acknowledges that TJ himself was probably the father of at least one and possibly more of Hemming's kids. If anybody would "sanitize" Jefferson's life and legacy (besides MES),it would be them.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Astropig @redweather @class80olddog 

Big difference between a slave who is "owned" by her master and an intern who chooses to pursue/be pursued by an older politician.  Nothing to do with race, either (except for TJ's hypocrisy as author of  Preamble's "all men are created equal").

The Doom
The Doom

@OriginalProf


Nope. An historian looked into it and concluded the much more likely culprit was Jefferson's younger brother. His younger brother was well known for messing with all the slave women. He was a sexual pig who freely took advantage of them. The researcher had also concluded that at least 1 or 2 of her kids were conceived when Thomas Jefferson was far away on business and could not possibly have been the father. The DNA tests merely prove that a couple of her kids were sired by a male member of the Jefferson family- not by Thomas Jefferson himself. 

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Astropig @OriginalProf @redweather @class80olddog 

Oh, I agree with you here. To me, what made it worse was that she was an intern. Clinton was rather like a professor messing with one of his students: the power differential cannot be ignored. I just meant that being a political "leader of the free world" has little to do with personal morality. The "faith ...entrusted" is social in nature.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@class80olddog @OriginalProf 

I wouldn't have any idea how it's used in AP classes....possibly to suggest the contradiction between the ideals of the Declaration of Independence that Jefferson composed and the realities of the time-period...to illustrate something about the Constitution's famed "3/5 rule" whereby a slave counted as 3/5 a person in the ratification vote...

Astropig
Astropig

@class80olddog


She was the Monica Lewinsky of her day.Proving that there is nothing new under the sun.

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf @Astropig @redweather @class80olddog



"(except for TJ's hypocrisy as author of  Preamble's "all men are created equal")


You better not let MES read that. She thinks TJ was a saint.

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf @Astropig @redweather @class80olddog


"Big difference between a slave who is "owned" by her master and an intern who chooses to pursue/be pursued by an older politician.  "


I think that the standard of behavior for the leader of the free world should be a little higher than to pursue an intern,don't you?

class80olddog
class80olddog

What is the phrase " a war's history is written by its victors"?  What would we teach about WWII if the Germans had WON?

GMFA
GMFA

Excellent article! The far right will try to nit pick it, but they will fall far short of their goal.

living-in-outdated-ed
living-in-outdated-ed

@Maureen, with all due respect to Mr. Altman, I would rather the rebuttal to the current legislation to come from a historian or history teacher.  I do not support the bill, but we must get the right folks to critique its flaws. I have blogged extensively about how politics should not weed into the content side of education, and this right wing push to brainwash our students into a warped view of U.S History is foolhardy.   We must strike a balanced view of teaching history - building patriotism but for the right reasons, because our country has survived despite its misgivings and constant challenges.   We preserve the union despite lingering societal inequities.   We cannot start saying which historical figures must be studied versus others.   When you start cherrypicking particular people, you get exactly what the folks in Oklahoma want - which is to say that Ronald Reagan deserves higher priority in APUSH than Abraham Lincoln or other figures.


Lets stop the political insanity and focus on fixing the system, not telling teachers how to teach U.S. History.   We're crossing a dangerous line, legislators.    Please don't cross it.



class80olddog
class80olddog

Politics drives EVERYTHING!  Do you think that politics did not drive paddling out of school and insist upon social promotion?  Why is politics only bad when it is the other side than what educrats want?

bu2
bu2

" It is a way to feed a national, conservative obtuseness in the face of demographic and cultural change. In the long run, they are fighting an inherently lost cause, and it is in all our students’ best interests to expose the flaws in their thinking."


You would think he would not be so obtuse as to fail to understand that he is admitting to doing the same thing he claims the conservatives are doing, exposing the "flaws in their thinking."


Its critical thinking that has created so many conservatives in the face of a liberal media and college faculty onslaught against their ideas.  Most people (I'm not excluding liberals) can see through the hypocrites.

Astropig
Astropig

@bu2


The guy is just using the right's biases to validate the left's.We're back where we started.

redweather
redweather

@FIGMO2  Well, would you like a bunch of teachers questioning what you do all the time?

Quidocetdiscit
Quidocetdiscit

@LogicalDude @redweather @FIGMO2


Yes, good teachers DO like it when students question - if the questioning is truly a result of critical thought and not just trying to score points by being disrespectful.  There is a difference.

LogicalDude
LogicalDude

@redweather @FIGMO2 Do teachers like a bunch of students questioning what they do all the time?  Critical Thinking skills leads to students recognizing BS taught to them by some teachers, as well as BS told to them by politicians. 

redweather
redweather

@Quidocetdiscit @LogicalDude @redweather @FIGMO2  My point, LogicalDude, was that teachers are often criticized by people who know little if anything about teaching. I would assume that anyone, no matter his profession, would find that tiresome. Should medical doctors, or lawyers, or plumbers, or CPA's patiently listen to criticism directed their way by school teachers?  I think not.  Should anyone give much credence to a teacher's criticism of the techniques and practices employed by members of those professions?  I think not. But when it comes to teaching, it seems that just about everyone feels qualified to criticize.

Bernie31
Bernie31

Just another reason why The Old Thinkers of this Nation need to hasten their Departure. The Old Thinkers are the real problem of America and her desire to move forward into a Global World. 

The Spirit Of America is always forever forward. She waits for no one and will not allow any group of Americans to prevent this forward growth.


The Train is leaving, the question remains are you going with the rest of US? or are you going to remain behind in your OLD Thinking?


You had better hurry....this Train is already leaving the station without, YOU.