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?