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, October 06, 2014

The Crux of the U.S. History Debate in Colorado

Last month I wrote a few postings about the controversy over the new guidelines for the Advanced Placement U.S. History test and course.

I found that some prominent complaints about those guidelines were simply false, and that the most vocal critic among educators appears to have a financial interest in preventing the College Board from instituting the new test.

That controversy made more national news when it became part of an already-brewing dispute over education in Jefferson County, Colorado. One member of the new far-right majority on the county education board, Julie Williams, proposed a special “Curriculum Review Committee” with the A.P. course guidelines one of its first targets. Her proposal (P.D.F. download) also stated:
Review criteria shall include the following: instructional materials should present the most current factual information accurately and objectively. Theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.
Those phrases “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law” and “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” come from Texas’s education guidelines.

The county Parent-Teacher Association “voted unanimously” to oppose the move. The Jefferson County Education Association voted “no confidence” in the new head of the education board, and teachers called in sick in large numbers. Students staged a long and boisterous walkout.

The South JeffCo Tea Party is a big supporter of Williams’s approach—despite taking its name from an episode of “civil disorder, social strife [and] disregard of the law.” That sort of ignorant double standard produced ridicule across the country.

Williams agreed to withdraw the language quoted above. However, she also issued a statement claiming that she was advocating balance and accuracy, not censorship, despite how her proposal demanded what curriculum materials “should promote” and “should not encourage.” More convincingly, she concluded:
Last, when it comes to history I believe all children graduating from an American school should know 3 things: American Exceptionalism, an understanding of US History, and know [sic] the Constitution.
Parallel structure aside, Williams thus admitted the ideological point of her protest, which matches the real reason for many other people’s protests about the A.P. guidelines: they want students to be taught that the U.S. of A. is special.

That’s a form of indoctrination, not just education. I prefer to think that if schools teach students about U.S. and world history accurately, they’ll be able to decide if and how the U.S. of A. is special. They’ll be able to reach their own conclusions about what parts of our national history are admirable, what parts should spur us to do better, and how best to reach collective decisions.

Last week, after fierce public debate, the Jefferson County school board’s conservative majority adopted a version of Williams’s proposal that requires her review committee to include teachers and students and to have open meetings. Since school curricula were already reviewed at two levels, the board’s new conservative majority thus managed to add a layer of bureaucracy. The underlying conflict has in no way been resolved.

TOMORROW: Exceptionalist thinking in action.

1 comment:

Jimmy Dick said...

One of the biggest problems with the entire conservative effort to oppose any changes to American history is their own education. Very few are historians and very few are educators. It is kind of odd to see national organizations of historians like the AHA and OAH, the two groups most historians belong to, ignored by people who are not historians.

The other problem lies with the pedagogy involved. As an instructor I have many students who have told me that they hate history. They find it boring and dull. They do not like having to memorize things. Once we get the class going they realize that this is not high school and that almost all of my questions begin with WHY.

I'm using a very similar pedagogical model like the AP course does, but mine is tailored to my institution and the student base it serves (as are almost all courses). The students are given the information in a way that supports the objectives, but in a way that involves their participation. We use primary sources so they can read what the people in the past had to say. They then begin to link the events together and build a timeline with several goalposts to help guide them. The result is a student who is actively involved in their learning.

I prefer that students be presented with the information. Let them reach their own conclusions and guide them along the way. They learn more this way than the older spoon fed method. American Exceptional will either stand on its own merits or collapse. If it has to be supported by artificial means, then it needs to be removed from the course. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the Jeffco group wants to avoid.