AP US History: Do We “Teach the Controversy” Or Don’t We?

AP US History: Do We “Teach The Controversy” Or Don’t We?

It’s really amazing how the behavior of conservatives (and unfortunately some liberals that join them in particular delusions) mirrors the behavior of people with really, really low self-esteem.

People with low self-esteem often try to lock onto a narrative, whether it be of their own worthlessness of or some kind of greatness, that they can use to compensate for how empty it feels inside.

And so conservatives today are pushing to change AP US History in Oklahoma (and eventually elsewhere) so that it basically complies with a hyper-conservative view of the world in line with Dinesh D’Souza rather than, say, actual academics. This is only the latest stage in an attempt by conservatives, an effort that has been utterly unmatched by liberals, to force textbooks to teach only their perspective and to force curricula to acknowledge only one half of the controversy. (This by the same people who, when it comes to evolution, demand that they “teach the controversy”, a bit of hypocrisy we’ll return to”).

This behavior is indicative only of a deeply scared and insecure worldview. It says, “I’m afraid that if my country is criticized that children will hate it”. Rather than having confidence that people can look at the evidence and come to the conclusion that conservatives would want them to, conservatives want to stop the debate entirely.

The fight against AP US History is a fight against good education. It’s a fight against people understanding their country with any kind of honesty. It’s a push towards intellectual conformity and is thus both deeply anti-intellectual and anti-education. It is a move that, no matter what the intentions of those people

Let’s be clear: There’s a position to be taken, and not a stupid one, that America’s done a lot of good in the world. One can easily make the case it’s done more good than bad. There are quite smart people who can present a view of the world that says, “The United States was in the past a slave-owning society that was often involved in some nasty colonial affairs. But even during that period, it was a leading light in terms of inspiring people across the world towards democracy and towards freedom. Today, the United States routinely gives foreign aid, intervenes to protect the human rights of people, and is expanding the rights of individuals in every arena from health care to the liberties of LGBTQ people”. Someone of a centrist perspective can, with some justification, point to the fact that the post-World War II equilibrium in which the United States has made itself a hegemon has been one of great material prosperity and peace that was unprecedented in history. Someone can even point out that the United States has rarely invaded countries and taken over directly the way that empires in the past has.

Now, I think that position is deeply flawed and ultimately untenable.

It ignores both how ultimately miserly US foreign aid is and how self-serving the aid that is given is.

It ignores how much the United States both contributes to insecurity across  the world by creating an international equilibrium of poverty and how the security the US has pushed has often been one based in the backing of dictators (ranging from Saddam Hussein to the Shah in Iran to Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan to Pinochet in Chile) and in the overthrow of elected democracy.

It ignores that the United States today, even as we’ve ended formal apartheid and advanced the rights of women, still has immense inequalities based on class, occupation, income, race, gender, sexual orientation, and national origin.

And, of course, the perspective that the United States has created a “Pax Americana” would justify the crimes of the Mongols and of the Roman Empire, both of which also ended up promoting quite a lot of peace and prosperity once they had taken over other countries.

I personally have always looked at American history from the perspective of Howard Zinn and of Larry Gonick’s stellar Cartoon History of the United States. These historical viewpoints are actually quite favorable to America, when people are able to look past simple and easy fairy tale mythology. Zinn had an optimism about the capability of the United States and its citizens to achieve higher levels of justice and empathy. He recognized the heroism of labor workers, people of color, Native peoples, and women.

So why is that an “anti-American” narrative?

Because it’s against white, rich, male, straight Americans. Because it denies that their perspective of history is the only one that matters.

AP US History was a vital exposure for many of my peers to a perspective of the world that I was already immersed in due to the left. It was the first time that simple, easy mythology of happy Pilgrims fleeing religious oppression dining with Native Americans and of American soldiers as the hero in every conflict got challenged.

Did every one of the students that I took AP US History classes with “sign up for ISIS”, as the intellectual coward Ben Carson alleged? Nope. Many of them remained quite conservative. Others fell into pretty mainstream liberal values. (Yes, I know that people who watch FOX News think that anyone left of John McCain is basically an anarchist trying to unmake the United States, but that’s partisan delusion, not anything resembling fact).

My own view of American history is one that sees a lot of complexity. The Framers expressed a view of the world that is deeply inspiring even today… one that they couldn’t live up to, given that they owned slaves, often backtracked on their own viewpoints (as with the Alien and Sedition Acts and with Jefferson’s expansion of federal powers), and ended up fighting against the poor and weak all too often. Americans in the past allowed their sense of entitlement and “manifest destiny” to lead them to commit genocide and to endorse slavery. (And, no, conservatives, the fact that we today feel sorry about that doesn’t make us special. It just makes us not giant dickheads. That’s a pretty low bar. And given how many conservatives are unable to acknowledge even the fact of Native American genocide, we still really have yet to be sorry as a nation without exception).

And I personally view America not only as the first anarchist nation on the planet, but also as a country that has embraced an idea of heroism and positive change that is ultimately good. I think that the desire that many Americans to police the world comes from a really great place. Americans routinely find themselves unable to accept injustice. We want to stand up for the little guy. All too often, we let that desire lead us astray to endorse some really insane policies. But there’s nothing wrong with the desire, and it lets us create art that inspires and galvanizes people everywhere to be their best. We gave the world Superman, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.

Conservatives are trying to pretend when it comes to US history that America is better than every other nation on the planet. Sorry, we’re not. Other countries have decent people and a yearning for freedom too. Other countries have stable democracies and functioning economies.

Conservatives aren’t just asking for their viewpoint to be taught. It’d be fine for a AP US History class to discuss the viewpoints of people who honestly endorse American exceptionalism. They want only their viewpoint to be taught, and none else. In fact, it was so naked that Dan Fisher, the guy who pushed forward the bill in Oklahoma to change the AP curriculum, had to withdraw the bill because his curriculum barely even had any speeches from non-Republican Presidents! (Heaven forbid that children be exposed to that inveterate socialist Eisenhower who cautioned Americans about a “military-industrial complex”!)

Conservatives are trying to rob children of the ability to actually debate issues. If someone wants to come to AP US History classes or even college and debate that America is a “nation on the hill”, they are free to do so. What conservatives want is for them to not have to. They want that argument assumed, even though there isn’t international consensus or even scholarly consensus in the US on that front.

Conservatives want to not teach history.

Remember that whole “teach the controversy” idea? It’s a fine concept. It actually doesn’t work when it comes to evolutionary biology because, in that instance, there is no controversy in the field. But when it comes to US History, there is in fact a controversy, and conservatives don’t want it taught.

So, which is it? Do we teach controversies or don’t we?

I’ll let conservatives figure it out for the sake of their own propaganda.

Until then, I’ll keep advocating that our education system actually teach a range of ideas, from Noam Chomsky’s critical view of the world to Dinesh D’Souza’s one. I’ll keep advocating that American children need to be able to process a whole variety of different viewpoints to be viable workers in a world that’s increasingly multicultural. I’ll keep advocating for a curriculum that actually prepares people to realize that other people don’t view the world the same way that they do.

Isn’t that the core of education in the first place?


4 thoughts on “AP US History: Do We “Teach the Controversy” Or Don’t We?

  1. Alright let me jsut say that not all conservatives are the same. Yes, people are scared of change and how the effects of society as a hole would be if they “the children of the future” found out just how bad the United States of America is. I’m a conservative on somethings but hiding the truth is not one of them. The United States hasn’t nor will it be a good Samaritan so to speak. We only intervene in other people’s business when we have to and it has to benefit us in some form or fashion. I was watching Fly Boys the other day. Excellent movie but not a lot of realism of just how bad things were during the war. America came in and everyone in that movie shouted with glee that America the big bad power of destruction was coming. When in reality, if America had come into the war earlier in the game, it would have been very different for those that fought early on. Another thing that was a shocker for me when I began college history is that I found out that Abraham Lincoln did not free the slaves for equality sake but for the North to win the war. Our books are tainted with false illusions and litigated with half truths. Talk to any foreigner from the UK/Ireland and their perspective of us is total hatred. Some love us but most think we are full of shit. To be frank, I’m a loving citizen of the United States. I’m very patriotic but I’m not naive enough to know that the United States is full of itself and it’s a hard dose of reality when you become an adult or a college student and learn the truth.

  2. arekexcelsior says:

    Of course people of a conservative bent aren’t all the same. I think it’s pretty obvious that I was speaking to the ideologically active conservatives.

    Your position about the US is one that is certainly not the mainstream of a lot of American conservatives. But to be fair I actually do disagree with you a little. I think America intervenes when it doesn’t “have to”, even for elites. I think sometimes we see America, even American soldiers, doing great stuff. It’s not all a monolith. There are people in the US aid departments and the military and the EPA and such who are idealistic and committed. I’ve heard stories of American soldiers doing truly heroic things, the things that don’t ever go in the newspapers.

    I also think you’re being unfair to Lincoln. The Republicans as a Party were idealistic and anti-capitalistic. They wanted free labor. Lincoln was deeply preoccupied with the unity of the Republic, but he was also an idealist who wanted slavery gone. He grappled with those questions prominently and was even able to win the respect of Frederick Douglass.

    Ireland is one thing, but the people in the UK have their own shit to work out 🙂 . The people in the UK come from a place of having been the last empire. They’re still important participants in US hegemony.

    So your responses here are an indication of exactly my point. I’m an anarchist and you lean right, but we’re having a discussion where I’m the one extolling some of America’s virtues and you some of our weaknesses and flaws. Being able to study US History honestly would let people have that kind of difficult talk.

  3. I think in this kind of debate we should differentiate a little:
    I’ve been to several places where the US had or had not intervened. I’ve met many people who’ve had their encounters with US-intervention.
    So there’s two sides to this coin as well. More actually:

    The reasons for the US’ intervention (or lack of it)
    The results of the US’ intervention (or lack of it)
    The actions of people send to intervene

    So maybe the US chose to intervene for its own gain and selfish reasons. If it did the people where they were intervening some good … do these people really care WHY help came as long as it did? Even refugees, victims, oppressed, etc. can be “selfish” and take the help sent, no matter what reasons it was sent for in the first place.
    Goes the other way around. Even if a country has very valid reasons not to intervene somewhere … the people in need of help won’t necessarily care for these reasons as long as they’re still left behind suffering.

    The problem – as I’ve seen it many times – with this kind of selfish help the US provides a lot of the time is it isn’t meant to last and as soon as the US’ needs are met or when too much shit has hit the fan and the US pulls out it seems to leave the people behind just as callously.

    The US’ problem in this debate is, in my opinion, that the US basically declared itself the world’s sheriff. Whenever I hear US politicians refer to the president and the US as “leader of the free world” I have this sudden urge to vomit, so grotesquely arrogant I find that self-image. Not in on itself but basically because it’s such a fucking lie in so many aspects.

    (So, as you can see, it’s not just the Brits who aren’t all fanboys of the US 😉 )

    Anyway, the US’ intentions and the US’ soldiers are two very distinct and separate entities. Most of your soldiers that I’ve met were good and decent people. Not all of them mind you. There’s PMCs who can be dicks (don’t have to be, mind you), there’s regular soldiers who have become disillusioned with the image the US projects officially and publicly while acting very different when nobody’s looking (so to speak).

    But even these disillusioned soldiers, just as much as the thoroughly convinced ones can still choose to do right by the people they were send to help. Once for example, in the Middle-East I was tagging along with a group of US soldiers and I knew (because they openly told me) how much they disapproved, simply because it put them under more stress and in more danger to have me around. They told me about their situation, how they sometimes felt fucked by their country, had lost all faith in “the mission”.
    And still I never doubted that each and every one would have thrown himself on a grenade to protect me. Because they had accepted a duty, every single one of them individually and they wouldn’t abandon it.

    So honourable and even heroic soldiers aren’t the same as the US. They stand for something, something many of them believe the US stands for and/or should stand for, even if it doesn’t. Goes for other people from the US as well of course.

    A country’s motives and intentions and what individual human beings make of it aren’t really the same. There’s Guantanamo, the infamous (rumoured) secret prisons in several countries around the globe, Abu Ghuraib, etc., there’s civil liberty and surveillance issues as well. Is that THE US? Or is it people acting for whatever reasons?

    Now, of course I disagree with you mostly on the reasons. Whether it’s reasons for the good stuff or the reasons for the bad stuff. Of course you can choose to reject my opinions and arguments (like many Americans do) simply on the fact that I’m not an American. But you don’t.

    Because the debate, the controversy as you call it, is important. When it comes to politics, history, education, whatever … it’s important to embrace the argument, simply to make sure all sides have been considered, have been taken seriously. To avoid being blind and losing touch as well as perspective.

    To stay with your example: I have no idea what Lincoln’s actual reasons were for freeing the slaves. But by having heard both arguments, both interpretations (and I’m sure there are even more) I have gained something. Without this disagreement, this controversy … ?

    Now, I freely admit I have never been too interested in US politics, except when they might have had an impact on my work, so I’m fairly sure I don’t grasp many (or most) of the details and intricacies but the importance of the dispute, the controversy I think is universal, American or not.

    p.s.: I’m a foreigner and I don’t hate the US. You are full of shit, though. But don’t worry, you’re not alone there. 😉

    • arekexcelsior says:

      I agree with you totally that motives are not the only relevant issue. If someone intervenes for selfish motives but it leads to positive outcomes, that CAN be a win-win. In particular, changemakers have to recognize that actions that benefit all parties are GOOD things, not bad ones.

      At the same time, motives matter for the purposes both of ethical determinations and in practice. I agree with the virtue ethics perspective that someone who does something virtuous unwittingly has earned no merit. And, in actual practice, it’s very unlikely that an organization with ethically skewed priorities will ever do much good even by accident.

      But my issue is that I just don’t see many cases at all where the US helps in the ways you’re talking about, even unwittingly. The total US non-military care budget is unimaginably miserly as a percentage of GDP. Most US military action tends to either exacerbate humanitarian crises or simply not do very much. In Kosovo, for example, US intervention actually worsened the problem on the ground. In Rwanda, the US simply did basically nothing. (Even the conventional wisdom on that score agrees).

      And, of course, there’s a crucial point Chomsky always makes in these discussions: The best thing that people can do to help is to clean up their own mess. Given that we back dictators, often have supported genocide (as in Turkey), and attack countries with massive negative outcomes (like the US bombing in Sudan), it’s pretty silly to discuss the accidental positive outcomes of the major US interventions.

      My position when it comes to both PMCs and the military (and police) is, “Take it up with management”. Just like I don’t blame workers at a plant for the pollution, I don’t blame American soldiers for the shitty framework in which they operate.

      Anyone who rejects an external view because it’s an external view is showing monstrous, massive arrogance. It ties in with something I said on the AP US History post: Those of a conservative and even moderate bent in this country often make arguments that would in a patient show really serious problems of self-esteem, aggression, etc. “You can’t have any perspective or feedback for me because you’re not me” is an infantile argument that only the most seriously inveterate people make. But I can say the fair version of that argument, which is that there are colors and nuances to the experience of being American that a foreigner may not be able to fully grasp.

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