J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

An Exceptional Thinker in Colorado

During the ongoing debate over teaching U.S. history in Colorado, one member of the state Board of Education, Pam Mazanec of Larkspur, commented on Facebook that she felt that the Advanced Placement U.S. history course would “portray the negative viewpoint as the correct answer.” As to what that meant, she went on:
As an example, I note our slavery history. Yes, we practiced slavery. But we also ended it voluntarily, at great sacrifice, while the practice continues in many countries still today! Shouldn’t our students be provided that viewpoint? This is part of the argument that America is exceptional. Does our APUSH (AP U.S. History) framework support or denigrate that position?
Mazanec’s comments showed ignorance of the facts, or willingness to distort them, in multiple ways.

First, it’s quite a narrow viewpoint to say that America “ended [slavery] voluntarily.” In a large portion of the country, slavery was ended through military force. Americans call this our Civil War. It’s on the test.

Second, other nations did end slavery without civil war, and before the U.S. of A. did. Having a popular movement to end slavery is thus a very poor “part of the argument that America is exceptional” among nations. In fact, America is exceptional in the history of our continent in not ending slavery through law rather than war, and not until 1865.

Third, while Mazanec claimed in her comment to “have read the framework and the sample test,” she didn’t acknowledge that the new A.P. U.S. History guidelines do mention the movement within American society to abolish slavery. Several times, in fact: points 3.2.III.A, 4.1.II.A, 4.1.III.C, 5.2.I.B., and 5.3.II.A. Abolitionism also comes up four times in the sample questions provided with those guidelines. And the framework comes with an index that should make finding those references quick and easy, even if one can’t just search the P.D.F. download.

Mazanec’s comment thus reinforced the non-intellectual basis of this form of “American exceptionalism”:
  • It’s not just about the U.S. of A. being “exceptional,” but about it being positive. It’s about making Americans feel good about the nation’s past, and better than people of other nations.
  • That positive view of America doesn’t need to be based on facts. If necessary, proponents of the idea can twist or ignore facts to enhance their positivity.
  • Proponents of American exceptionalism also don’t feel bound to facts in describing educational programs they oppose. If a history lesson doesn’t make them feel good, it must be missing something. 
Unfortunately, such certainty is error is not exceptional. The same claims seem to pervade the opposition to the new A.P. guidelines.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Dear John:

Am following your coverage of the Colorado history standards kerfluffle with great interest...entertaining and astute as always! I got a particular laugh over the local (Jefferson County, no less) Tea Party supporting the proposed proscription of anything young scholars might interpret as advocating or supporting social disorder and civil unrest!

Chris said...

When people advocate that we teach a view of history that doesn't include the facts or twists or replaces information for how we want to view our past and our current policies it ceases to be history and is just propaganda.