Opinion: AP history ought to treat founding fathers as men, not monuments

A veteran teacher whose writings have appeared on AJC Get Schooled, J. Marcus Patton blogs at jmarcuspatton.wordpress.com where this essay on the changes to APUSH first appeared. He is working on a book, “History is Story: Reforming the Way We Teach and Learn About Ourselves in the Information Age. ”

Patton has some great stuff on his blog, including a good piece on Stone Mountain and Confederate history. But today, he discusses the changes announced by the College Board to Advanced Placement U.S. History, better known to students as APUSH.

The College Board altered the course framework last week to mollify critics who said recent revisions downplayed positive aspects of our nation’s history and its founders and failed to recognize “American exceptionalism.”

Writing on this blog, Georgia state Sen. William Ligon, Majority Caucus Chairman, wrote: “The College Board requires educators to teach history through ‘themes’ and ‘key concepts’ that create a distorted and incomplete understanding of our American story.” Ligon said the College Board turned America’s melting pot into a boiling pot.

By J. Marcus Patton

Last week the College Board, which sets guidelines for the Advanced Placement classes taken by high school students around the country, announced that it will revise its U.S. History curriculum in response to criticism from activists who felt that it inadequately emphasized American heroes. One of the phrases to be added to the new guidelines is “American exceptionalism.”

A history teacher says it is more interesting to students to present heroes as real people rather than icons. Photo courtesy of National Park Service http://www.nps.gov/moru/photosmultimedia/index.htm

A history teacher says it is more interesting to students to present heroes as real people rather than icons. (Photo courtesy of National Park Service.)

But it is a tool that can facilitate misunderstanding as well.

To be  unique– to be the exception to everything – is to be alone in the world.

But to be a part of the great pattern of human existence, the latest expression of irrepressible human nature, is to be in touch with ourselves, and with each other. As humans we learn from each other. As exceptions, we have nothing to learn. Different rules apply.

There is a limit to the value that can be gained from exceptionalism. There is a limit to the value that can be gained from celebrating heroes. When we place certain human beings outside the realm of normal human experience, we put them on the other side of the line from ourselves. That’s not fair to them or to us, and in so doing we rob ourselves of valuable lessons in life.

I haven’t yet studied the changes in the Advanced Placement course for U.S. History. But my initial reaction to the news I have read is that this constitutes a dumbing-down of the curriculum, a disincentive to question or to dig deeper.

And it is in digging deeper that the story becomes more real, more interesting to students, to scholars, and to the casually curious. Students in my classes over the years were not surprised to learn that George Washington was the wealthiest man in Virginia. They were a little surprised to discover that he achieved this status by marrying the wealthiest widow in the colony. Washington was highly regarded in his own day, but this was to a great extent as a result of careful calculation on his part. He studied and scrupulously followed the rules of etiquette. He entered the military as an officer (he was, after all, born into the class of respectable wealthy landowners) in order to prove his leadership skills and devotion to public service.

In an era when to lobby for positions of power and influence was considered crass, Washington did not ask for command of the Continental Army. He simply showed up as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in full dress uniform until the other delegates took the hint. He deserves a great deal of credit for holding together a ragtag army for years while facing a formidable foe, but he lost more battles than he won, and some of his greatest successes in the field were in simply escaping annihilation.

Washington the man, complete with human failings including unbridled ambition, obsessed with his public image, is far more interesting as a figure in history. And it is far easier for students to aspire to accomplishments as great as his were, when we see him as a man, and not a monument.

The problem with heroes is that their great deeds are by definition unremarkable. Heroes do great things. They are not like most of us. Different rules apply.

But wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge that ordinary men and women are capable of extraordinary deeds – that all of us can aspire to do great good? Shouldn’t we teach history in a way that allows students to discover for themselves whether a person’s actions are worthy of admiration, instead of decreeing hero status on a select group of historical figures? Shouldn’t we challenge students to identify the ways in which the United States is like other nations throughout history, and the ways in which it is an exception, instead of starting from a declaration of American exceptionality?

 

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Reader Comments 0

68 comments
JMarcus
JMarcus

I love to read the comments on this blog.  But I find it difficult to read comments on pieces I have written until the heat cools a bit.  I don't know at this point if anyone will read these words.


I will say that it is encouraging to see such passion aroused by educational policy, and by the way we view the reputations of people long dead with such fierce loyalty.  It renews my faith that we do indeed have the energy and the will to pull public education out of its current doldrums.  What directions we pull it is another question .... 


The proposition is simple, really.  We should view actions as heroic (or not), not people.  People are complex, and sometimes even those capable of heroic actions are also capable of actions not so heroic.  It limits our ability to understand  the people we are studying if we label them before we examine the evidence about them.


There is nothing wrong with coming to different conclusions based on the same evidence.  Jurors in court cases do it all the time.  It is proof that we are thinking, and not just memorizing what we have been told.


Think about this:


Do we need a stable of heroes in order to maintain national pride?  Reasonable minds may differ.


Do we need national pride in order to succeed as a people?  Is it possible to move forward with a belief and faith that we can do better (even if that means acknowledging that we haven't always done our best)?  Reasonable minds may differ on these questions as well.


Thanks to everyone who thought enough to comment here.  I invite you all to check out my blog at jmarcuspatton.wordpress.com and take issue with me there as well.

catmom-scout
catmom-scout

J. Marcus Patton writes that he "[hasn't] yet studied the changes in the Advanced Placement course for U.S. History." Yet he felt compelled to write a piece about the changes. That tells me all I need to know. Kind of like Pelosi telling Congress to pass the bill so we can find out what's in it.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

So, George Washington was the wealthiest man in Virginia?   Makes his actions even more exceptional, IMHO.

He could have rested on his laurels and enjoyed his station in life.  But no, he, like the rest of the Founding Fathers, risked it all to fight for their beliefs and freedoms.  If the colonists had lost the war, the Founding Fathers most likely would have been executed, their land and holdings confiscated and distributed to British sympathizers.  

Some on here downplay his military acumen, stating that he lost more battles than he won.  What they don't tell you is that he was fighting a delaying action, pecking away at the British until the American forces could be gathered and trained.


We should be so lucky if our "leaders" of today were 1/100th the caliber of men that our Founding Fathers were.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Lee_CPA2 

Washington also had a ferocious temper which he had the firm discipline to keep under control.  His temper only showed itself on rare occasions. Jefferson said of Washington that he had the best judgment of all of the founding fathers and that he was a truly good man.  Want to read more about the flaws and assets of George Washington, read my words written in my blog, here?:  (Read that Washington kept more slaves on his plantation than was financially sound for him to do and that that decision could have caused him to lose his wealth but he would not sell his slaves because he did not want to break up slave families and because he did not believe in the selling and buying of human beings, especially when his slaves would have been vulnerable in the society-at-large without a means of self-support.)

https://maryelizabethsings.wordpress.com/2015/02/17/was-george-washington-petty/

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Not only "can" we make changes to our Constitution, but our Founding Fathers expected us to make those changes, and they desired for us to make those changes, over time.  Jefferson advocated for the abolition of slavery as a young man even while writing the Declaration of Independence and he advocated for public education for all of America's children so that this nation might have an educated populace that could be inclusively self-governing.  One of the reasons President Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon was so that those Americans without land could move into the western territories and become landowners. Washington freed his slaves in his Will in order to show the nation the direction it should move over time. Alexander Hamilton wished for America to have an economic system of power which would be the envy of the world and would allow for social mobility from the lower classes upward.  Jefferson, on the other hand, contended that Hamilton's banking and financial network vision for America would create an elite, ruling class in America similar to what the American colonists were trying to remove themselves from, in the Old World's aristocratic class structure.  We can see that Jefferson's vision seems very apt today regarding the dangers inherent within Hamilton's vision, almost 2 1/2 centuries since he walked on this earth.


Our Founding Fathers, each, expected us to make social and economic changes because they were not only "of" their times, but they also were "beyond" their times in how they visualized that America would eventually become that "more perfect union" to which they had committed their "honor, fortunes, and very lives," as they stated in the Declaration of Independence.


Presently, I am reading historian John Ferling's book entitled, "Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation," in which the two opposing visions for America's future by Hamilton and Jefferson caused Jefferson to resign as Washington's Secretary of State in that Washington supported Hamilton's economic vision which would enhance a more centralized federal government, primarily, although Washington saw the merit of Jefferson's egalitarian and self-governing vision, also, and had wanted both men to stay on board in his administration.  These men were looking not simply decades ahead, but centuries ahead. We are still debating their two different visions for America today, with each vision having morphed, of course, over time.  Yes, they were exceptional men and they were human beings with flaws like every other human beings who will ever live.

popacorn
popacorn

Caution: The following blog contains purposeful misquotes of  the Declaration of Independence. Please consider this when considering the validity and competence of any post or posters. 

class80olddog
class80olddog

I don't understand why the sudden urge to tear down famous persons to mere men and women (or build them up either).  Does it matter if MLK had affairs?  Or that Washington had a mole on his left butt cheek?  Or that Jefferson fathered children by a slave?  Do we care if King Henry VIII had a long nose? 


Isn't it more important what they DID? 

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Quidocetdiscit @class80olddog Look at who brings up MLK's affairs - the people who want to sully his other words.  Same thing with people who say Jefferson fathered children with a slave, or that Washington lost more battles than he won, or that Lincoln wanted to ship slaves back to Africa.  They all have their own agenda.  So what was the agenda for the previous APUSH guidelines that minimize United States "exceptionalism"?

We have had our system of government now for nearly 250 years - something must be "exceptional" about it.  It isn't socialism like in the former Soviet Union (how long did that last?); it isn't a monarchy like in old Great Britain or France. 

Astropig
Astropig

@class80olddog


"Isn't it more important what they DID?"


Exactly the point that has been lost in this idiotic controversy.I view this (courageous) decision by the College Board as a win for true academic freedom.

Quidocetdiscit
Quidocetdiscit

@class80olddog


Why is it considered "tearing someone down" to discuss someone as a whole person and not as some iconic representation of an ideal?  Certainly, we need to know what someone did, but in order to fully identify with them and see ourselves in them, we need to know they also were human and sometimes had flaws. (I do not think a mole on a butt cheek or a long nose actually falls into this category.  I doubt that such trivial content is contained in the AP coursework.)   For me, the most meaningful heroes are those who DO have flaws and make mistakes, but persevere despite their shortcomings.   If someone is presented as perfect, then their heroism requires no struggle or true sacrifice and I find their achievements perhaps less inspiring.  I can relate to other humans - not so much to 'gods'.

Quidocetdiscit
Quidocetdiscit

@class80olddog @Quidocetdiscit


Our "system of government" is certainly a unique experiment and one worth celebrating, but perhaps not based  on longevity, since other countries have had their government systems much longer.  However, a system of government is not a person and I was discussing the imperfections of human individuals.  


And if a good teacher brings up the flaws of Washington or Lincoln, they do so to demonstrate that even the best of us are products of our times and may not always see issues with the insight that history gives us.  Sure people will use flaws to tear others down, but that is not necessarily part of an educational "agenda".  There are ways you can use someone's weaknesses to educate and enlighten... a savvy teachers understands this.  Unless I could read actual APUSH lessons that used such flaws to tear our founding fathers down, then I would like to believe they were presenting a more balanced and thought provoking approach.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

@class80olddog

"Does it matter if MLK had affairs?"

No, other than to illustrate the ethical and moral character flaw of a man who would cheat on his wife.


What is more damning about MLK are his well documented ties to the Communist Party - during a time when the USSR and USA were in the middle of a "Cold War" and probably minutes away from a nuclear exchange.  Khrushchev  stated that they would "destroy you [America] from within" and the communists were backing the so-called "civil rights movement" both financially and logistically.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

As today's current events turn into history, a reflection upon our present President's long-term standing is given, below. My words, in quotes, are shared simply as intellectual food for thought based upon my previous posts today.


"Consciousness has changed in Americans and so have America’s demographics. America will not see a return to an outdated perception of interpersonal dynamics based on hierarchy and on the control of the less fortunate through the wealth and power of the more fortunate, as was true with slavery and Jim Crow. Americans are becoming more egalitarian in their perceptions, just as our Founding Fathers had envisioned would happen to citizens within our nation, over time.

President Obama understands well that egalitarian vision, with both his head and his heart. Watch for him to try to enhance that consciousness through programs that will strenghten the working middle class, lift the under classes (especially through education), and foster egalitarianism, as best he is able, throughout the world. If only Republicans will not remain intransigent toward him and his vision, as they have been in the past few years, America, under Obama’s leadership, will continue to move toward that “more perfect union” to which she was destined."

Astropig
Astropig

@MaryElizabethSings


I personally want to see what a body of scholarship says about our current president in decades hence.Warren Harding was loved and revered at his death,not so much now.

straker
straker

Do Black History professors put their hero's " outside the realm of normal human experience"?


Or, do they show them warts and all?


I'd bet on the former, not the latter.

STColeman
STColeman

@straker And you would lose that bet. Next time, try taking a Black History course before posting what you perceive goes on there.  

It's been 20 years, but I remember learning about and discussing MLK's "affairs" as well as Malcom X's criminal past prior to his conversion to Islam. And this was while attending an HBCU. 

BearCasey
BearCasey

@bu2 @STColeman @straker  I beg to differ.  My AP students got the straight story on everyone during my 25 years teaching the subject.

Astropig
Astropig

Just want to point out again that the story is not quite as pat as it's being made out to be. To be sure,lots of Republicans have criticized the (now former) framework as being biased against certain perspectives on our shared history.But a large group of distinguished scholars and historians from all over the nation weighed in with their concerns a couple of months ago:


https://www.nas.org/images/documents/Historians_Statement.pdf


I would urge you to read their petition to the College Board and then decide if you're being given a complete account of this controversy.


OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Astropig 

I can't find the source for this link, or what organization created this petition. The address reads "nas. com."  What is "nas"? Just the existence of a petition, in itself, doesn't prove anything.

I noticed on the petition that a lot of the signatories were retired professors (not that there's anything wrong with that!) and/or from private religious schools.

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf @Astropig


"I noticed on the petition that a lot of the signatories were retired professors (not that there's anything wrong with that!) and/or from private religious schools."


What has that got to do with anything? Age bias? They are distinguished scholars.Period. If we're only going to listen to the side we agree with,then we may as well vote on "correct" history.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Astropig @OriginalProf 

You would be surprised at what my "comfort zone" encompasses. My question was genuine. What organization has sponsored the survey? It wasn't noted on your link.

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf @Astropig


THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF SCHOLARS !!!!!!


https://www.nas.org


Did you not read my above post?


Obviously, their call for a balanced curriculum was heard and acted upon by the College Board, so as far as I'm concerned,that settles the matter to my satisfaction.I hate it for you folks (or "you people" to quote one of our bigoted posters),but this is done and done. Teachers will teach it by the framework and if you don't like it,take it up with them. Historical facts are not going to change,but there will now be room in the teaching of those facts for more than one narrow viewpoint. That makes this a win not for the "right" or "left",but for scholarship and academic freedom.

Astropig
Astropig

@BearCasey @Astropig @OriginalProf


Exactly. That's why this "controversy" is so pointless.I want the widest possible latitude for teachers to impart the facts to their students,and that includes perspectives from the "right" and the "left". A teacher that lived through the end of the Cold War,for instance, can tell students first hand some things that a textbook or media presentation distort or miss completely. They can add depth and texture to scholarship that a dry recitation of facts might avoid.


Likewise, many post graduate students have made a study of certain historical figures from our history as part of their studies and their expert knowledge is wasted if the curriculum is too rigid or controlled by one side or the other of the political divide.

Astropig
Astropig

It's hard to understand what the writer is driving at here.The change in the APUSH framework does not mandate what teachers can say or when they can say it.The teachers out there in the classrooms may well say exactly what he would like them to say about Washington or any of the other great figures of our history.I would rather that they teach what they know instead of being "directed" by either the right or the left side of the current political spectrum.It would appear that he wants to set parameters that are just as narrow and confining as the people he opposes.In this,he doesn't give AP students the credit they deserve for understanding that our founding fathers were fallible human beings,with shortcomings,hypocrisies and contradictions.


Thankfully, the College Board decided to actually practice the "diversity" of thought that their now former friends have always sought in the study of history.





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

Patton has just penned one of the best posts I have ever seen on Get Schooled.


Thank you for such a refreshing perspective.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

This is an example of the "higher consciousness" that most of America's Founding Fathers possessed, which made them exceptional:


My words from my blog:


"Relating in a vertical way to others means assigning power to some over others. Power is present in most human interactions. However, the more highly evolved a person becomes spiritually, the more he or she recognizes the hollowness of relating to others through a power hierarchy instead of through an equal humanity. Watch how others relate, not so much to those who are above them in status in the eyes of the world, but how they relate to those who are below them. When you encounter a street person, who is without shelter or food, do you first look into his eyes with humanity and try to reach his unique soul, or do you instead label him a “loser” and pass him by? If you do the former, then you are moving into the future, and not remaining in the hierarchical past, as the world continues to evolve toward a higher consciousness of understanding the essential humanity and equality of all who are alive." 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all are created equal. . ." - Words by Thomas Jefferson for all people for all time. 

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@class80olddog 

I left out the word "men" because I believe that the narrow definition of "men" was not intended.  Think of the nearly outdated word, "mankind," as a similar example. The word "mankind" has traditionally referred to all human beings. Many writers today, knowing that, choose to use the word, "humankind" as a more definitive expression of the original intent of the word "mankind."  Ditto, as to why I left out the word "men" in "the direct quote from the "Declaration of Independence."  I believed that most would understand why I chose to do that.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@MaryElizabethSings @class80olddog  You left it out to be PC. Same reason that Star Trek changed its theme to "boldly go where no one has gone before".  Tell me, do you think Jefferson wanted women to vote?

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@class80olddog 

I believe that those words in the Declaration of Independence were written by Thomas Jefferson, with the concurrence of our other Founding Fathers, to be expansive toward the unalienable rights of human beings, not restrictive to those rights.


The society in which Jefferson lived had different mores than ours does today.  Likewise, our society today will become anachronistic to the mores of the world's future societies, over time.

Here is what Jefferson had to say about that.  Judge for yourself if you believe Jefferson thought that women are/were second class citizens inherently.  I do not believe Jefferson believed that, any more than John Adams, whose wife was the elevated, well-read Abigail Adams, believed that to be true of women.


Thomas Jefferson:  (From Dr. Saul Padover’s book, “Jefferson” - footnoted to Jefferson's "Notes on Virginia") 


” ‘Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. . . .I know. . . that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. . . .As. . . new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors. . . ."

 
“His (Jefferson’s) conclusion in the matter of laws and institutions was that they were perpetually subject to change for the benefit of humanity. ‘Nothing then,’ he told Major John Cartwright in 1824, ‘is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.’"



popacorn
popacorn

@MaryElizabethSings

You can't just change a quote to suit your beliefs. I can't believe you. A real piece of work. Writing your own history? Offensive. . 

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@class80olddog @MaryElizabethSings 

Did he, historically speaking, want black slaves to vote or white men who did not own property?  Jefferson was a man of his time-period, in many ways.  He assumed a definition of "man" that we do not have today.  That is simply the historical truth. His definition of "man" was shared by Washington and the other Founding Fathers: a white property-owning male.


OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@popacorn @OriginalProf 

I am speaking out of a knowledge of eighteenth-century Europe and America, of which the Founding Fathers (and certainly Jefferson) were a part. That was what they all believed. I am not the one who altered the quote.

popacorn
popacorn

@class80olddog @popacorn

I know, she seemed to rationalize it and therefore validate the practice. My bad if I implied that. Run like the wind from that quote!

PS Catch of the year, olddog

class80olddog
class80olddog

@MaryElizabethSings "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all are created equal. . ."

Is that the exact quote?  Did you leave out a word? Are you being Politically Correct? Or did my history teacher teach it wrong?

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@class80olddog @OriginalProf @MaryElizabethSings 

I would hope so!  But still, if we are teaching the history of this country, we should give students an accurate idea of what the country changed from.  And in the 18th century, those governing the colony and making its laws, as well as the mother country England, defined "man" to mean a white, male property-owner. That last qualification is sometimes ignored---the white man had to own property. 


So slaves and ex-slaves, women, and poor tenant farmers were not included in the definition of "man." And they could not vote.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Quidocetdiscit @class80olddog @MaryElizabethSings  Of course they did - but Star Trek was already inclusive.  What other show featured a female, black officer?  But the elimination of the word MAN when it obviously included WOMEN is PC to the max - garbagepersons, mailpersons, flagpersons.

bu2
bu2

@OriginalProf @class80olddog @MaryElizabethSings 

But as for the white male, as late as 1860, Blacks were denied the vote in New York State.  There were still slaves in Kansas, Nebraska and New Jersey in the 1860 census and nearly every state in the 1840 census (22 of 26).

Quidocetdiscit
Quidocetdiscit

@class80olddog @Quidocetdiscit @MaryElizabethSings


Perhaps to you, but as a long time Trekker and a woman, that phrase always bothered me, even as a girl and long before there was even the glimmer of the idea of being PC. Have you considered that it may be possible that as a man, you might not be as attune to the implied dismissal?


"...garbagepersons, mailpersons, flagpersons"


Please consider  WHY those phrases originally ended in MAN... because MEN were the default, the ultimate, the only ones worth considering.  It is the very same reason you will read about "black" actors or "black" lawyers, or "black" doctors - because for years, the default has been white.  People do not feel the need to identify "white" because the natural assumption is that the doctor, or actor or lawyer is "white."


BTW, aren't the terms actually "sanitation worker" and "mail carrier"?


It isn't necessarily PC...it is just growing awareness of society's previous blind spots.