Friday, October 3, 2014

Objective Patriotism

For the past few weeks, I have been seeing stories about widespread protests in Denver. Apparently the flashpoint for all of this unrest was a resolution submitted by Jefferson County school board member Julie Williams. It sought to modify the AP History curriculum to promote "patriotism and ... the benefits of the free-enterprise system" while eliminating anything that would "encourage or condone civil disorder." Williams submitted the resolution after she heard that conservatives from around the country were upset about the new AP History curriculum.
Brennan Linsley/AP
The conservative pushback is being led by Larry Krieger, a retired New Jersey high school teacher who cites the omission of D-Day and several founding fathers as evidence of the courses anti-American bias. The sentiment was echoed recently by likely Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson who stated, “I mean I think most people when they finish that course, they’d be ready to sign up for ISIS.” For her part, Williams insists that she simply wants history to be taught “complete” and “without bias.”

The proposal has ignited a firestorm in Colorado’s second largest school district. Hundreds of students have walked out in protest of the resolution and teachers at four high schools organized a “sick-out” to protest the school board’s actions. An online petition presented to the school board has garnered over 40,000 signatures. Ironically, the protestors also want AP history of be taught “completely” and “without bias.”

I suppose that the difficult thing about bias is that it is impossible to identify in an unbiased manner. Both sides claim to be historical purists but neither side can agree on what exactly that means. This is an AP course so there should be an emphasis on critical thinking and independent interpretation. By the same token, there are irrefutable, historical facts such as people, events, and dates that are integral to American history and should be included. What I have read of the curriculum emphasizes much broader conceptual thinking. Let me give you an actual example from the course:

Explain how activist groups and reform movements, such as antebellum reformers,
civil rights activists, and social conservatives, have caused changes to state institutions and
U.S. society

That is a broad objective. It certainly allows for diametrically opposed answers depending on how you interpret the people, events, and dates involved. An extremely conservative Republican might answer the question by arguing that the modern social conservative movement simply wishes to return America to the values it was founded upon while an extremely liberal Democrat might insist that the founding fathers wouldn’t even recognize the modern conservative movement.

Here is another:

Analyze the goals of U.S. policymakers in major international conflicts, such as
the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Cold War, and explain how U.S.
involvement in these conflicts has altered the U.S. role in world affairs

Again, the objective is broad enough not to mention D-Day specifically, but is certainly conducive to its discussion within the framework of World War II. It does not appear to portray the role of the United States in foreign affairs as negative or positive, only to analyze it. If you analyzed our role in world affairs as a complete isolationist you would see it as one mistake after the other, while an interventionist might argue each as just cause for America’s involvement.

I have no doubt that Julie Williams was well-intentioned, but I must say that the idea of discouraging “civil disorder” might be the most un-American concept to arise from the entire discussion. One could argue that our entire history as a nation is predicated upon our willingness to participate in acts of civil disobedience and disorder. Contextually, everything from the Boston Tea Party to Dr. King’s March on Washington falls into that category. As far as the “joining ISIS” comment is concerned, I will give Dr. Carson the benefit of the doubt and assume he was intoxicated.  

That is not to say there are not legitimate flaws in the revised AP course material. Like any curriculum with broad academic latitude, the tone of material is greatly susceptible to viewpoint of the instructor so their bias would be the most destructive of all. Personally, I would find it difficult to impartially grade such expansive concepts. If the student does not come to the same conclusion as you, does that mean the student did not complete the objective? Is it possible for two people to interpret the same set of data differently while still learning?   

In either case, I believe that the education system works best when it teaches participants how to think and not what to think. Certainly we have a responsibility to ensure the accuracy of the facts presented in our historical textbooks, but we cannot control the lens through which those facts will be interpreted. We are a nation founded, governed, and populated by the flawed; therefore I find it unnecessary to abridge America’s faults in order to promote its virtues. I am thankful that I live and hold citizenship in the greatest country on Earth, but I am equally as thankful that I have the freedom to discuss and ponder its mistakes.  

You can read a list of the course objectives here.

1 comment:

  1. I hate to go old school - but this protest and issue is unimportant. The students should be PROTESTING all the military invasions by the US of other countries.

    This students would be REAL interested if there was a draft.


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