The growing debate surrounding AP US history

What’s American history for – to build patriots or to enlighten students? And how should it be taught?

Advanced placement courses are much sought-after by college admission committees, ambitious students and school boards trying to offer a serious and demanding curriculum. AP calculus, AP chemistry — there's no controversy. Those are hard sciences and are light on interpretation.

But AP U.S. history? That's a political punching bag. And the recent reformulation of curriculum and standards has legislators and school boards gunning for the new standards. Their complaint? Basically that the coursework is too heavily weighted against the United States and that the portrait that emerges is of a racist, genocidal, unjust society. They argue it should be portrayed as a beacon of liberty to the world for more than two centuries.

The Oklahoma legislature was moving to get rid of AP U.S. history in schools across the state until state Rep. Dan Fisher, who was spearheading the effort, backpedaled. Many other states have debated the new AP standards too. Legislators and elected school board members want more emphasis on American exceptionalism to balance, for example, the story of Southern plantation slavery with the religious-based struggle to end it. 

Texas, an enormous state with enormous influence on textbooks and curricula, has asked the College Board, which administers AP tests, to rewrite the curriculum.

What is U.S. history for?

And how do you teach it?

We asked a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

Inside Story: How did you get involved in this campaign?

Moin Nadeem: I follow my principal and former teacher on Twitter, and I saw them tweeting about how some representatives in the state legislature were trying to block the new AP curriculum. My first reaction is that the state should not have control over what we do and do not learn. My second reaction was that it would blow over. I was going to make a site like the ones used to fight for net neutrality. Instead, I just made the petition, spread it out, and it caught on fire.

What has been the reaction to your petition among people you know?

I have had a great reaction from my school and friends. Teachers give me fist bumps in the hallway. They aren't allowed to actually say anything but most people are really positive about the reaction.

Is this a culture war between different parts of the state, such as the Tulsa area versus Dan Fisher and his constituencies?

Dan Fisher is probably in Oklahoma City. [My school] Jenks does have some homogeneous opinions, but we are one of the nicer schools in the district. Oklahoma usually bleeds red politically. Dan Fisher is not knowledgeable enough about the curriculum, so he doesn't have enough to say about this.

Have you been in touch with state officials?

I am attempting to. I am wrapping up the petition. I am in touch with the state commissioner of education, and I am emailing the legislature with an attempt to meet with them.

There is a lot of talk of the new curriculum lacking American exceptionalism. Is it really educators’ job to tell students how exceptional America is?

Ian Tuttle: I do not think that is the argument. Exceptionalism says that a careful examination shows that America is unique and has performed benefits for the masses in a way that is simply unparalleled. I do not think they believe that this is self-evidently true and we need to bash it into students heads. American exceptionalism does not at all ignore or seek to neglect facts or uncomfortable facts about American history. American exceptionalism as a term is even controversial on the right.

Most conservatives think there is a way to be fair — to go back specifically to the old AP history curriculum that’s divided into various sectors. Forty percent of the old curriculum was social history, and that consisted largely of a treatment of America’s history of dealing with racial minorities and other disadvantaged groups. It is not like the AP U.S. history test was this glorification of the U.S. and now it is not. Conservatives need to acknowledge that fairly. Many of them, at least, have.

How do you see this playing out?

Obviously this is an issue of who controls what are kids learn. Should education be a nationally standardized prerogative, or should it be left up to the states? As far as Texas and Oklahoma, in particular, if you accept that states can set their own guidelines for what their students learn, I think the educational boards of both states will come up with substitute curricula that will be perfectly adequate. Advanced placement is a private operation by the College Board. A private company. It only has purchase because states buy into it. It is not like Oklahoma and Texas are flouting any laws here. This is curriculum that most people think is OK but is really not that good and want to opt out. 

What do you make of what is going on in Texas and Oklahoma concerning advanced placement American history?

Jim Grossman: For some people, the purpose of teaching history is to inculcate patriotism, and for others it is to learn how to be better citizens by learning how to think historically — which, I would argue, is patriotic. In some ways it is a definition of how you constitute the citizenry. The implications of negativity do not account for how those narratives inspire pride in other ways based on how we have overcome things we are less proud of. Just by virtue of putting everything forward, we should be inspiring pride by showing our openness.

I think that the emphasis on historical thinking — as opposed to names, dates and facts — is good. What the College Board is trying to do is get teachers and students to see AP history as a course in which students learn to think historically through the study of U.S. history. They learn U.S. history in a way that gives them an opportunity to think independently about the material they are reading. Historical thinking is crucial.

The above panel was assembled for the broadcast of “Inside Story” to discuss.

For future hard-hitting conversations, find Al Jazeera America on your TV.

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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