Taking Exception to Exceptionalism, or Everything Sunny All The Time Always

23 02 2015

Forces in the Georgia State House are aligning against the new AP US History standards being put forth by College Board. Apparently they look at US History in too negative a light and focus too much on groups like the Black Panthers. I may have to read the new curriculum. I think the Black Panthers in particular offer an excellent teaching opportunity – if the United States has been such a paragon of freedom and virtue and equality, why did members of a particular race feel that it was reasonable and worthwhile to join and support an armed organization calling for radical change? Were they misled? Were they crazy? Let’s look at some of the things members of the organization said and weigh them against the historical facts of their era and come to a conclusion. We can take note of the fact that other groups were confronting the same issues with a nonviolent approach – maybe it would be instructive to see the reactions to their nonviolent protests. We could talk about things like the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, named for “a former Confederate brigadier general, U.S. Senator from Alabama and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan,” or the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Lots of great opportunities for discussion there.

If you refuse to acknowledge that anything was ever wrong, you’re never equipped to confront new wrongs. If you only act like your country is perfect and has always been, you’ll never work to make it more perfect. There’s a line about those who don’t remember history, but I don’t remember it. Perhaps it bears repeating.

UPDATE: I’ve finished reading the actual AP US History guide, found here. I strongly encourage anyone interested in this discussion to do the same. I didn’t see anything objectionable or inaccurate in what it presented, but more importantly, the guide takes great pains to make it clear that the examples used to illustrate key time frames and concepts are suggestions, not prescriptive, and are provided in response to specific questions by AP teachers. Such examples are also not meant to be exhaustive – the guide explains that they are only provided in areas where “teachers reported uncertainty regarding what content they might choose to teach a particular concept” and that “this content is illustrative – not mandatory.”

As I mentioned above, critics have specifically called out the inclusion of the Black Panthers, as in the case of Texas state board of education member Ken Mercer, who said, “When you start omitting things, you’re censoring things. I was shocked. They had civil rights and the Black Panthers, but not Rosa Parks. What’s left out smells of agenda.” (CNN). I’m surprised that Mr. Mercer was unmoved by the clear statement in the guide, “For example, AP teachers reviewing the concept outline clearly identified which concepts called for inclusion of Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, but they were uncertain what examples might be effective for the teaching of Concept 8.2.III.C (attacks on postwar liberalism). Therefore, the Committee inserted a gray box for that concept, suggesting the examples of Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers. In no way does this signal that it is more important to teach the Black Panthers than Martin Luther King, Jr.” (emphasis mine). For one thing, that explicitly mentions Rosa Parks. For another, it is a suggestion, not a mandate, and it doesn’t begin to suggest what should be said about the SDS or Black Panthers.

Ben Carson, ever a great source for measured, thoughtful commentary, said “There’s only two paragraphs in there about George Washington … little or nothing about Martin Luther King, a whole section on slavery and how evil we are, a whole section on Japanese internment camps and how we slaughtered millions of Japanese with our bombs,” and “I think most people when they finish that course, they’d be ready to go sign up for ISIS.” (Huffington Post, Politico)

Well, Dr. Carson, I read the course guidelines, and I remember only a passing mention of internment camps, balanced by a mention of the heroism of Japanese American Daniel Inouye during WWII. There was no mention of “how we slaughtered millions of Japanese with our bombs,” though there was a suggestion that the decision to use the atomic bomb might be an interesting point for discussion of American values. While slavery is mentioned in many places, it’s “a whole section” of our history, is it not? Did it not define (or at least profoundly influence) the evolution of our society, economy, and government for hundreds of years? Can anyone actually make a reasonable argument that it shouldn’t receive significant attention in any serious discussion of United States history? Also, Dr. Carson, the word “evil” is used once in the entire guide: “A good response [to an essay question about a passage from historian Kathryn Kish Sklar’s “The Historical Foundations of Women’s Power in the Creation of the American Welfare State,” Mothers of a New World, 1993, and another from historian Robert H. Wiebe’s The Search for Order, 1877-1920, 1967] would provide an explanation of one piece of specific evidence – from the period 1880 to 1920 and not mentioned in the excerpts – that supports Sklar’s interpretation, such as … The growing influence of ‘muckrakers’ in journalism who exposed what they saw as evil and corruption in politics, the economy, and society in general” (emphasis mine). Even the discussion of slavery is handled in a detached, abstracted sense – it happened, it had an impact on the country, some felt it was immoral, others tried to justify it. I certainly agree that it was evil, but the guide doesn’t go out of its way to rub anyone’s nose in it.

Dr. Carson, I respectfully submit that your argument is not supported by the facts in evidence, and in fact distorts the truth. Hey! You know what? The Republican National Committee’s resolution against the guidelines claims that it “deliberately distorts and/or edits out important historical events.” How about that? I’ve shown you my evidence – feel free to show me yours. Seriously – I encourage anyone who feels the guidelines are biased and/or distorted to offer evidence. I will seriously consider it, but it better be more substantial than Dr. Carson’s inaccurate account of that which he is against.

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