Sunday, February 22, 2015

Some Thoughts on Advanced Placement United States History in Oklahoma

Rep. and Rev. Dan Fisher of Oklahoma
I am glad to hear that State Representative Dan Fisher has decided to rework Oklahoma State House Bill 1380.

For those of you have not been following this controversy, Bill 1380, which originally made it through an Oklahoma House committee by a vote of 11-4 (the vote was along party lines with Republican voting in favor and Democrats rejecting it), would cut state funding for Advanced Placement United States History courses because the College Board's recent revisions to the course make it too "unpatriotic." Fisher, the author of the bill, claimed that the AP course did not teach "American exceptionalism" and focused too heavily on "what is bad about America."  

The backlash to this bill in Oklahoma has been so strong that Fisher has decided to pull it.  According to this article, one of the opponents of the bill is Patti Harrold, a veteran AP teacher, a self-proclaimed "conservative Christian Republican," and President of the Oklahoma Council for History Education.


Conservative lawmakers and educators have been critical of the new AP curriculum framework since it first appeared in October 2012.  Larry Krieger, a retired North Carolina teacher, has been leading the fight against the College Board for a couple of years.  In a March 2014 piece he called the changes to the course "a curricular coup that sets a number of dangerous precedents."  He is upset about several things related to the course content.  He claims that the section on the colonial period is too focused on race and "British cultural and racial superiority." Similarly, he complains that the section on Manifest Destiny ignores the American mission to spread democracy across the continent, focusing instead on the racial implications of westward expansion.  Moreover, there is not enough attention given to the Declaration of Independence, James Madison, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin.

In August 2014 the Republican National Committee joined the anti-APUSH chorus with a resolution criticizing the College Board's "radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation's history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects." The resolution chided the College Board for neglecting coverage of the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and the religious dimensions of United States History.  The resolution claims that the new curriculum framework has excluded Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, Martin Luther King, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Holocaust.

In September 2014 the College Board responded to the criticism.  College Board President David Coleman stressed that the published "framework" was not meant to be a full curriculum.  It serves only as a guide for teachers to plan their courses.  In the end, teachers still have the power to choose their course content (individuals, events, documents).  If teachers wants to spend more time on World War II or the Founding Fathers they are welcome to do so, but Coleman also reminded his critics that the topics and themes chosen as examples in the framework "represent common perspectives in college survey courses that merit familiarity, discussion, and debate."  In the end, the teachers and professors who grade the AP exam will reward students based on their use of historical evidence and historical thinking in constructing an argument, not on whether or not they agree or disagree with the historical movement they are asked to write about.

Around this time James Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association, took to the op-ed page of The New York Times to defend the new AP curriculum framework.  He praised the framework for its emphasis on historical thinking, the interpretation of historical documents, and focus on a "dialogue with the past."  He reminded us all that "learning history means engaging with aspects of the past that are troubling, as well as those that are heroic." He explained why all historians must be revisionists.  He even pointed out that there are parts of the framework that make a "bow to American exceptionalism."  Since then, Grossman has weighed in, albeit briefly, on the Oklahoma controversy.


This recent manifestation of the APUSH wars pits an evangelical pastor and Oklahoma state legislator against the historical profession as represented by the College Board.  Dan Fisher is the Senior Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, a megachurch in Yukon, Oklahoma.  He graduated from Arkansas Tech University.  He has been the pastor of the Trinity Baptist Church since 1992. According to this biography, the church has grown considerably under his care.

Fisher is also active in Tea Party politics as a member of the so-called "Black Robe Regiment," a group of conservative evangelical pastors who follow the example of the eighteenth-century patriotic ministers who used their pulpits and influence to promote the American Revolution.  Fisher travels around the country, dressed in eighteenth-century clerical garb, speaking about the need for a revival of The Black Robe Regiment as a means of saving the country from the present-day threats to liberty foisted on the American people by big government and "activist courts." He is a dynamic and powerful communicator.

You can listen to his dramatic "Bringing Back the Black Robed Regiment" presentation here (scroll down a bit).  The presentation starts with a clip from the Mel Gibson movie, "The Patriot." He then, quite accurately, shows the way in which eighteenth-century ministers applied the Bible to every aspect of American life, including politics.  The heroes of this presentation are Peter Muhlenberg, James Caldwell, Jonas Clarke, Charles Thompson, Thomas Allen, Jacob Duche, William Smith, and John Witherspoon.  He also argues that the First Great Awakening brought about the American Revolution.   Some of the stories he tells are accurate, others are probably myth, but they all work well to support Fisher's message.  He believes that it is time to restore the United States to its Christian roots and the history of the Black Robed Regiment is our primary guide for making that happen.

Like David Barton and others, Fisher is using history to promote a political agenda in the present. All one has to do is listen to his Black Robe Regiment presentation to understand why he would be opposed to the curriculum framework of APUSH course. For Fisher, history is important primarily for its ability to promote a Christian nation and a Christian understanding of American exceptionalism rooted in John Winthrop's "City on a Hill."


Unfortunately, Fisher does not understand the purpose of studying history in a school curriculum. Indeed, the study of history develops civic awareness and provides us with heroes from the past that we can look up to.  But this is the only kind of history that Fisher wants to promote.  This kind of search for a useful past makes sense.  Our natural inclination is to find something familiar in history--something that affirms our own convictions in the present.

Historians know, however, that not all of the past is familiar or useful.  Not all of the past serves our present-day agendas. Yet we must study it.  Students do not have to see themselves in the past in order to learn from it.  Their study of history can develop character, the kind of moral and intellectual development that happens when they encounter historical actors who are strange to them.

Real history education takes place when students learn to respect the ideas of people with whom they (or their parents) might differ.  Historical thinking forces them to lay aside their own biases and enter into the mind of a person from the past who may have views that do not conform to their own. Such an engagement with the past lends itself to certain virtues--empathy, prudence, hospitality, self-denial--that might make our students better people.  This is the real value of the study of history in schools.

Perhaps the study of race in America might help a high school student from a conservative Baptist home in the South learn something about the plight of their Mexican-American neighbors or the suffering of poor migrant workers.  Or perhaps her classmate, the child of secular atheists, might come to value the way that religion--an particularly Christianity--was important to the founding of the United States.

History, when taught correctly, has the power to transform us, regardless of the subject matter. It forces us to put aside our own selfishness and see ourselves as part of a human story that is larger than the contemporary moment in which we live.  As educator Sam Wineburg writes about history, "Of the subjects in the secular curriculum it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology--humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history."


Over the years I have developed some familiarity with APUSH.  I taught the course at a private boarding school.  I graded APUSH exams in San Antonio for seven years.  I have trained APUSH teachers.  I have never been a big fan of the course.  When I taught it I always felt like I was rushing through the material so that my students knew enough information to do well on the test.  I always wished that there was more time for reflection and debate.  I wanted more time to teach students about how to read a document and to help them imbibe historical thinking skills such as context, contingency, change over time, causation, and complexity.  Content is important  It produces historical literacy.  But content is easily forgotten.  As I argued repeatedly in my book Why Study History?history has the potential to make us better citizens, employees, and even people of faith.

So needless to say I was very happy to see the folks at the College Board revise the APUSH course in order to stress historical thinking skills.  The course now emphasizes chronological reasoning, comparison and contextualization, crafting historical arguments, and interpreting and synthesizing ideas,  The course now conforms to some of the best new scholarship in history education, the kind of stuff being written by scholars such as Wineburg, Bruce VanSledright, Lendol Calder, and others. While we still need to expose our students to as many historical perspectives and voices as possible in the APUSH course (see below), the primary goal should be dialogue and engagement with these sources.

With this in mind, I would have no problem teaching Dan Fisher's proposed APUSH replacement course.  Anyone who argues that there is not enough race, class, and gender in his choices of documents is missing the point of a good history education.  But for those who still want to complain about "who's in" and "who's out," I would point out that Fisher leaves plenty of space for Native American voices in the colonial era.  The course includes documents by Frederick Douglass, Chief Joseph, William Jennings Bryan (I am surprised the "Cross of Gold Speech" made the cut), Abigail Adams, Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Malcolm X, Lyndon Johnson, Chief Joseph, and Booker T. Washington.  I would probably add a few more documents to the mix to provide some balance, but I have no major problems with Fisher's choices. While Fisher would probably be disappointed that I would not use his proposed curriculum to promote or endorse the ideas in any of these documents, I think his choice of documents is just fine.

But in the end, I am guessing that Fisher will not be satisfied with my skills-based approach to teaching United States history.  It probably sounds too close to the skills-based emphasis in the Common Core. He believes that content is more important than skills.  So with this in mind, let me try to address Fisher's concerns about what he believes to be the "unpatriotic" content in the APUSH course and do so from a theological perspective that Fisher just might understand and agree with.

Evangelical Christians like Fisher and the members of his Trinity Baptist Church believe that God has created humans.  In the opening chapters of the Old Testament book of Genesis, we learn more about what that means.  One central theme in the Genesis creation story is the affirmation that humans are created in the image of God (imago dei in Latin).  That God created human beings in His image implies that all human beings have inherent dignity and worth independent of their actions and behavior.  Christianity teaches that because human beings are created in the likeness of the Creator, and thus share, in some fashion, the divine image, human life is precious and sacred.

The imago dei should inform the way Christians approach the subject of history.  This doctrine should guide us in the kinds of stories we tell about the people whom we come across when visiting the past.  It should also shape the way Christians teach about the past.  An approach to history informed by imago dei can make Christians unafraid of historical scholarship that brings the voices of new actors--actors that fall under the categories of race, class, and gender--into the national story.  Fisher thinks that the APUSH attempt to add such disparate voices to the curriculum framework is just another example of political correctness, but by including slaves, Indians, women, the oppressed, and others alongside the story of the great white males the folks at the College Board are, unintentionally to be sure, reflecting some very good theology about the Creation and the nature of human beings.

Yale theologian Mirsolav Volf reminds us that 'God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless.  God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social, and embodied selves with their specific needs." I would love to hear Fisher and other Christians who think that certain voices do not belong in the stories we tell our children about the past offer a response to Volf.  On closer examination, one might even argue that the examples given in the new APUSH curriculum framework might be more compatible with Christian teaching than the nationalistic, God and country approach to history Fisher wants to teach the students of Oklahoma.

But let's not stop there.  As Fisher knows, the Christian tradition also teaches that God created all human beings with freedom.  Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a responsible and free being.  The freedom to make choices with our lives can lead Christians toward a life of communion with God, but it can also lead us into sin.  Fisher is certainly aware that human beings throughout history have made the choice to prefer themselves over God.  This, after all, is why Fisher's church preaches redemption.  Christians believe that because of the fall (Genesis 3), the image of God in humans has been tarnished by sin.  The sinfulness of humans means that we live in a world filled with brokenness, injustice, and violence.

I wonder what role the Christian doctrine of sin plays in Fisher's view of American history? Historian George Marsden has written that "of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification."  Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.  

Fisher obviously believes that children should study history for the purpose of becoming informed and patriotic citizens.  He is not alone.  The study of American history has always served a civic function in this country.  But what has resulted from this approach to teaching history is a skewed view of the American experience that celebrates certain heroic figures to the neglect of others. American nationalism triumphs over the stories chronicling those moments when the United States failed or when it acted in ways that might be considered unjust.  Such an approach to American history is not only one-sided; it also fails, from the Christian perspective that Fisher espouses, to recognize the theological truth that all earthly kingdoms and nations are flawed when compared to the Kingdom of God.

I am not suggesting that we should stop teaching our kids the stories that make us feel good about about our country.  But Christians should not surprised when they encounter stories that may lead them to hang their heads in collective shame.  As Marsden puts it, it is a "sign of maturity" when "representatives of a group can write history that takes into account that members of that group are flawed human like everyone else.  In the long run, the most convincing histories will be those that portray their protagonists with faults as well as virtues."

Let's hope the revised version of this bill does not see the light of day.