American Exceptionalism, American Mythology, AP US History, AP US History Exam, Ben Carson, College Board, Conservatives, Curriculum Framework, Cypher, Educational Testing Service, ETS, Founding Fathers, Harold Meltzer, Joe Pantoliano, Lynne Cheney, Mealy-Mouthed, morison, Morison and Commager, Selling Out, The -tions, The Matrix (1999), WASPs
So, the College Board and ETS sold out last month to the willfully ignorant, ideologically conservative set, and will mythologize AP US History after all. The tales of the perfectly brilliant Founding Fathers, of great, rich, powerful White men who built this nation with their bare hands, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps without any help, will be front and center now. AP US History has gone through a re-re-revision of its curriculum guide to spend time providing lessons in blind patriotism, in American civics as great legend, making a generation of already over-tested kids even more ripe for being underprepared for college and beyond. One more instance where providing an opportunity for independent thinking has knuckled under to the profit-motive for two so-called, multibillion-dollar nonprofits.
I wrote about the small scale of the College Board’s middle-of-the-road approach in its second revision of the AP US History curriculum in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in May, a few months before they showed flexibility to the right-wing nut-jobs. As a historian, professor, educator, writer, and critical thinker, I don’t think I was ever satisfied with AP US History or its mealy-mouthed curriculum. Just because one presents a complex concept that can be difficult to discuss in pleasant language doesn’t change the fact that people and even students will frequently resist that concept. The idea that slavery played a central role in building the economic infrastructure of the US, for instance. That’s hard for most Americans to accept, even with the evidence staring in their faces every single day.
As a student in the late Harold Meltzer’s AP US History class at Mount Vernon High School in eleventh grade back in September ’85, though, I found the once nationally recommended textbook for the course unacceptable myself. It was a textbook people like Lynne Cheney and Ben Carson would’ve loved, and can still be found in many high school classrooms even today. Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager’s The Growth of the American Republic, originally published in 1930, a time when rich WASP males were the only people of US history who counted.
I don’t recall exactly what edition we had, but it was a 1962 version, well-preserved by Meltzer. It was built fundamentally on what we academic historians call consensus history, meaning a unified, singular march toward a better society, a better American republic. Meaning that American Indian removal, slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, the Cult of Domesticity, the anti-immigration movement, the battles between labor and robber barons, got almost no play in the textbook. I was so bored with Morison and Commager that I stopped reading the book after the first eight pages, including the table of contents. I earned my 5 on the AP US History exam anyway.
That’s what the privileged set wants for our kids from pre-K through graduate school. A steady diet of history from a patriotic victors’ perspective, of progress and constant triumph, of narcissistic navel-gazing. But teaching history in the twenty-first century needs to be about more than powerful people, famous places, significant events or even a mass of faceless victims. Add to this the fact that most high schools and many undergraduate programs still teach US, European and most aspects of history around the world as if the subject was a trivia game like Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit. I know that’s what most of my students would want — although a few would pull their hair out from a well-learned hatred of the subject or from sheer boredom.
What I have done in my US and African American history courses over the years is talk about what I call “the -tions.” Assimilation, civilization, exploration, and gentrification, and especially immigration, industrialization, migration, and urbanization. The -tions represent large-scale processes and patterns that add up to defining themes in history, especially for the past 500 years. After all, history is about people, and what people say, do, and leave behind over the course of their lives. Not just famous, rich, slaveowning individuals who came together to found a country to maximize their own material advantages. But the millions of African slaves and dusky non-WASP European immigrants whom those same WASP males worked to death to build this great nation.
The -tions give us historians the what and how, but not the why people did what they did. This would be where capitalism, sexism, imperialism, racism, and ethnocentrism come into play. The idea of profit, whether for oneself or for king and country, drove the need for cheap labor, and thus, the use of kidnapped African slaves on plantations or starving Irish peasants in northeastern factories. Or, the idea that middle class WASP “ladies” shouldn’t work outside the home or have a say in public life, lest their moral centers become corrupted.
I try to channel these ideas through my teaching, in smaller doses in introductory courses, in larger ones in upper-level courses. The majority of my students fight it like my teaching methodology is chemotherapy or like Joe Pantoliano’s character Cypher in The Matrix (1999), desperately desiring to be blissfully ignorant over knowing the full measure of US history. For me, it’s not even about ideology. It’s about truth, about viewing life and history and people with an independent and skeptical lens, as “everybody lies…but we don’t lie all of the time.”
To work through all this may be too much for many. But it’s better than taking the free ride of lazy history that the College Board and ETS are now providing, courtesy of the privileged class.