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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Monday, February 23, 2015

The Oklahoma Checklist of U.S. History Documents

Yesterday I described how the Oklahoma legislature was considering a bill to replace the Advanced Placement U.S. History framework with legal requirements more to its members’ liking (P.D.F. download). Here are the specifics of that proposal with my commentary.

The first clause states the state government will design a course “in lieu of the Advanced Placement United States History course and test offered by the College Board.” After the committee passed the bill, the story that Oklahoma was planning to ban the A.P. course in favor of its own curriculum became national news. The bill’s chief sponsor then insisted he was actually a supporter of the A.P. course (on his terms, presumably) and planned to revise the language to make that clear. So the bill might change significantly.

Right now the bill states:
The following foundational and historical documents shall form the base level of academic content for all United States History courses offered in schools in the state, including Honors and Advanced Placement courses, and all United States History courses shall include appropriate grade-level study of the documents.
Thus, the bill starts out addressing only an Advanced Placement test—i.e., only for high-school students studying at what’s supposed to be collegiate level. But it then expands to cover “all United States History courses” in Oklahoma and refers to different grade levels, suggesting that its approach to American history could even be mandated in elementary schools.
Teachers may structure, organize, deliver and teach each document in a manner and order to facilitate student learning. In addition teachers may include other foundational and historical documents, readings and curriculum materials in the course instruction.
The College Board framework is likewise clear that teachers can include topics and materials not explicitly mentioned in its pages and teach the stated themes in various ways. But that hasn’t stopped critics of the framework from insisting that the framework skips over any topic or person it doesn’t mention by name.

That framework doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive list of topics, but this bill does define its list as the “foundational and historical documents…for all United States History courses.” The legislators’ choices and omissions thus become more significant and worthy of analysis.
The foundational and historical documents are:

1. The actual content of the organic documents from the pre-Colonial, Colonial, Revolutionary, Federalist and post-Federalist eras of the United States;
The term “organic documents” seems to come from corporate law, referring to documents that set up an organization. The list that follows goes well beyond such charters, however.

The word “pre-Colonial” was probably inserted to allow the inclusion of such documents as the Ten Commandments and Magna Carta. It’s not clear what period “post-Federalist” covers, whether only the early republic or through today.
2. The major principles in the Federalist Papers;

3. The writings, speeches, documents and proclamations of the Founders and Presidents of the United States;

4. Founding documents of the United States that contributed to the foundation or maintenance of the representative form of limited government, the free-market economic system and American exceptionalism;
The sponsors’ conservative politics become clear in the second half of that clause.
5. Objects of historical significance that have formed and influenced the United States legal or governmental system and that exemplify the development of the rule of law including, but not limited to, the Magna Carta, a complete overview of the “Two Treatises of Government” written by John Locke, the Ten Commandments and the Justinian Code;
The word “objects” seems odd. Perhaps it’s there for people who’d object to the Ten Commandments being called a document instead of stone tablets directly from God. Which translation or interpretation of the Ten Commandments is left unstated.

That clause originally included the mythical “Mecklenburg Declaration” as well, though why it was listed there instead of among the Revolutionary writings is a mystery.
6. United States Supreme Court decisions;

7. Acts of the United States Congress, including the published text of the Congressional Record;

8. United States treaties; and
And since that’s still not specific enough…
9. Other documents, writings, speeches, proclamations and recordings related to the history, heritage and foundation of the United States, including:
a. the Declaration of Independence,
b. the United States Constitution and its amendments,
c. the Mayflower Compact,
d. the Bill of Rights,
e. the Articles of Confederation,
f. the Virginia Plan,
g. the Northwest Ordinance,
h. the national motto,
Presumably the one adopted in 1956 and not the one chosen by the Continental Congress in 1782, shown in the seal above. Note how the chronology has broken down as the bill’s authors throw in anything they think is important.
i. the national anthem,
j. the sermon known as “A Model of Christian Charity” by John Winthrop,
k. the sermon known as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards,
l. the Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death speech made by Patrick Henry,
Nothing from the Stamp Act Congress, Dickinson’s Farmer Letters, or other documents from the long debate leading up to the Revolutionary War. The Congress’s crucial “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms” doesn’t make the cut. But with so much from the founding era included, I shouldn’t complain.
m. the letter known as “Remember the Ladies” by Abigail Adams,
n. the writing titled “Common Sense, Section III: Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs” by Thomas Paine,
o. the essay “Federalist No. 10” by James Madison,
That essay already falls under the “major principles in the Federalist Papers,” “The writings, speeches, documents and proclamations of the Founders and Presidents of the United States,” and “Founding documents of the United States that contributed to the foundation or maintenance of the representative form of limited government.” But I guess it’s much more important that any other Publius essay. And much more important than any writings against the new Constitution.
p. the Farewell Address made by George Washington,
Among the omitted documents from the early republic are Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Washington’s address to the Jewish community of Newport, and Jefferson’s “wall of separation” letter to the New England Baptists, all strong statements of religious tolerance and equality. Combined with the inclusion of the Ten Commandments and two Massachusetts sermons, that makes the law’s Christianist leanings obvious.

Also passed over in this period are the McCulloch v. Maryland decision, the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and any documents related to the Louisiana Purchase.
q. the Monroe Doctrine statement made by James Monroe,
Nothing from the very influential administration of Andrew Jackson, including the debates over tariffs and nullification. Nothing of the significant compromise laws of the ante-bellum period. And, most curiously for Oklahoma, no mention of the Indian Removal Act that created the Indian Territory.
r. the overview of the book titled “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville,
s. the document known as the “Declaration of Sentiments” by Elizabeth Cady Stanton,
t. the Independence Day speech made by Frederick Douglass at Rochester, New York,
u. the House Divided speech made by Abraham Lincoln,
No other Abolitionist literature is included, nor the Emancipation Proclamation. The Homestead Act is not mentioned.
v. the Gettysburg Address made by Abraham Lincoln,
w. the Second Inaugural address made by Abraham Lincoln,
Nothing from Reconstruction, its end, and the aftermath.
x. the surrender speech made by Chief Joseph,
y. the poem titled “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus,
Alongside this paean to immigration, students don’t have to read any of the exclusionary immigration laws. From the same period, Francis Bellamy’s original pledge of allegiance doesn’t make the cut.
z. the article titled “The Gospel of Wealth” by Andrew Carnegie,
Though not Franklin’s earlier “Way to Wealth.” Of course, no pro-labor, anti-capitalist, or reformist writing from the Gilded Age.
aa. the essay titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” by Frederick Jackson Turner,
This strikes me as the oddest inclusion—not an “organic document” or a political statement like the “manifest destiny” writings but a historical thesis now widely considered passé. No other long-lived historical thesis—not Tracy’s Great Awakening cycles, not the Beards’ economic interpretation of the Constitutional Convention—makes the cut.
bb. the Atlanta Compromise speech made by Booker T. Washington,
But nothing from W. E. B. DuBois.
cc. the Cross of Gold speech made by William Jennings Bryan,
A famous oration, but for a political campaign that went nowhere. Meanwhile, the list includes no temperance or prohibition literature despite that movement being successful enough to amend the Constitution.
dd. the Roosevelt Corollary made by Theodore Roosevelt,
ee. the New Nationalism speech made by Theodore Roosevelt,
ff. the Peace Without Victory speech made by Woodrow Wilson,
Needless to say, no Margaret Sanger.
gg. the First Inaugural address made by Franklin D. Roosevelt,
hh. portions of the book titled “The Grapes of Wrath” written by John Steinbeck,
ii. the Four Freedoms speech made by Franklin D. Roosevelt,
jj. the Day of Infamy speech made by Franklin D. Roosevelt,
kk. the article titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” by George Kennan,
ll. the address that became known as the Truman Doctrine made by Harry S. Truman,
mm. the Address on Little Rock, Arkansas made by Dwight Eisenhower,
nn. the Farewell Address made by Dwight Eisenhower,
oo. the Inaugural address made by John F. Kennedy,
pp. the Decision to Go to the Moon speech made by John F. Kennedy,
qq. the letter known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” written by Martin Luther King, Jr.,
rr. the I Have a Dream speech made by Martin Luther King, Jr.,
ss. the Ballot or the Bullet speech made by Malcolm X,
tt. the Great Society speech made by Lyndon B. Johnson,
uu. the American Promise speech made by Lyndon B. Johnson,
Who would expect a right-wing Republican legislator to mandate the teaching of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” warning, Johnson’s “Great Society” push, or anything by Malcolm X? Clearly the bill’s author was trying to reflect some of the changes of the 1960s. On the other hand, there’s no second-wave feminist literature and nothing from the big constitutional crisis we call Watergate.
vv. the First Inaugural address made by Ronald Reagan,
ww. the 40th Anniversary of D-Day speech made by Ronald Reagan,
xx. the Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate speech made by Ronald Reagan, and
yy. the Address to the Nation speech made by George W. Bush on September 11, 2001.
Those last items tilt decidedly to the right, as critics immediately noticed, but let’s be honest—most history classes wouldn’t get that far in the school year.

I wondered if the authors of this list had drawn on some preceding assemblage, the way a proposal from Jefferson County, Colorado, copied language from Texas and the current bill from Georgia took language from the Republican National Committee. However, I couldn’t find a source through an online search for several of the more idiosyncratic phrases. This language seems to be particular to this bill.

The proposal’s emphasis on “documents,” most of them primary sources, is striking. That mirrors how the A.P. test presents students with historical sources to analyze as practice for historical research. Much as I enjoy closely reading documents myself, I think it also reflects the thinking behind originalism, the idea that the nation’s earliest documents contain better answers than any later consensus or expertise.

In addition, the emphasis on studying famous orations bespeaks an old-fashioned outlook toward education. There are many other types of historical sources, after all. Starting in the mid-1900s, for example, we have audio and then video recordings of major addresses and other significant events—battles, civil rights marches, campaign debates, space missions, Bush’s classroom visit through the 2001 attack, and so on.

TOMORROW: The bill’s sponsor.

1 comment:

Jimmy Dick said...

I question who is advising them. I have a feeling we will find Christian Nationalists behind much of it as they have a very decided pro-American Exceptionalism interpretation of history.

It is interesting that in my American History on Screen class today we were going through Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. The discussion came to the Japanese government's use of history education to indoctrinate the people in order to literally prevent any questioning of the government's authority or methods of governing. For all the the complaints about wanting government out of education, these GOP legislators sure have no problems dictating how to educate students when the legislators have no educational background. The same goes for their lack of historical knowledge. It is like the blind leading the blind.