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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

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.



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.