Why (Good) History Matters: The Republican National Committee and the AP Exams

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus scowls as thinks about actually educating Americans about history.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus scowls as he thinks about actually educating Americans about history.

Have you ever heard someone say that pursuing the liberal arts is a waste of time? Sure you have. The refrain goes something like this: Studying the liberal arts is a waste of time because you’ll never get a job with a “useless” degree in English, Art, or (gasp!) History. A few years back, for example, the estimable Forbes ran an article titled “The Ten Worst College Majors,” and, of course, almost all of them were liberal arts majors. In a similar vein, Thought Catalog troll Matt Saccaro has claimed that the liberal arts, including history and literature, should be outright removed from college in order to focus on “what matters;” namely, making lots of money.

This granite-headed attitude — that the study of the HUMAN EXPERIENCE is now pointless because it won’t make you any money — is what passes for conventional “wisdom” in modern America. And even those who aren’t calling for an outright banning of the liberal arts are trying to squelch the idea that intellectual pursuits should be liberal at all. I mean, it’s almost as if some dark, malevolent force seeks to drain Americans of their access to critical thinking skills, numb them to the beauty of art and literature, nullify their ability to understand the complex web of human history, and deprive them of the intellectual tools needed to question authority and interpret human existence as more than just an endless series of vacuous, materialistic market exchanges.

Which brings me to the Republican Party.

Recently, the odious pit of snarling Uruk-hai known as the Republican National Committee (RNC) condemned what they call a “radically revisionist” view of American history that is supposedly presented in the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history exams. As Talking Points Memo reports, the RNC sent an open letter to the College Board to voice their complaints about the AP’s alleged assault on American freedom, and the core point in their letter is worth quoting in full:

Instead of striving to build a ‘City upon a Hill,’ as generations of students have been taught, the colonists are portrayed as bigots who developed ‘a rigid racial hierarchy’ that was in turn derived from ‘a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority…

The new Framework continues its theme of oppression and conflict by reinterpreting Manifest Destiny from a belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technologies across the continent to something that ‘was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.’

You see the problem there? The actual story of the American past — what professional historians would call “reality” — has run afoul of the Republican Party’s simplified vision of an American experience characterized by the steady, inevitable march of freedom that benefitted EVERYBODY, dammit. If you think that the liberal arts don’t matter — if you think that history doesn’t matter — then you’re dead wrong, and the RNC’s complaints against the AP History exam demonstrate exactly why you’re wrong. To quote the esteemed scholar Dr. Emmett L. Brown, the critical study of history helps us “to gain a clear perception of humanity — where we’ve been, where we’re going, the pitfalls and the possibilities, the perils and the promise — perhaps even an answer to that universal question, ‘Why?'” The Republican Party knows that those with the authority to interpret the “why” of U.S. history also wield enormous influence over how the general population understands what they can expect from American citizenship.

Conservatives know full-well that a population deprived of the critical thought that the liberal arts provides will be a population that accepts their lot in life without question. They know that an American populace that is unaware of the real struggles that have defined U.S. history will be a populace of acquiescent drones who tacitly accept the inherent “goodness” of America and, therefore, will never think that things can ever be better than they are at any given moment. A wholly obedient citizenry lacking in critical thought will never question the Status quo; it will never challenge the unmitigated power of hierarchical employers, clergy, and state officials, and it will never demand that America consistently live up to its founding values — because an America that was manifestly destined to spread those values could never have deviated from them in the first place, right?

If the RNC has its way, all American history course will be taught by Prof. Michelle Bachmann.

If the RNC has its way, all American history courses will be taught by Prof. Michelle Bachmann.

The critical aspect of good history always revolves around that simple question, “Why?” At its core, the study of history is the study of why humans do the things they do. Historians analyze the past so that we can learn from the past, and while good scholars understand that all historical eras must be examined in their own context, they also understand that learning from the mistakes and misconceptions of our forebears is essential to interpreting how human ideologies, decision-making, prejudices, and triumphs have culminated to create and continually shape the contemporary world as we know it. Thus, if you believe (as you damn well should) that the ultimate value of studying history (and ALL of the liberal arts) is to learn how we can facilitate human flourishing via an understanding of how human freedoms have been curtailed in the past, then you should be aware of why the RNC wants to simplify and distort the very real struggles for freedom that have defined the American historical experience.

Indeed, despite Republican delusions, history doesn’t consist of mere fairy tales that detail the harrowing account of how George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, a time-traveling Lee Greenwood, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex-riding, open-carrying, tax-cutting, pro-free-market Jesus saved America from Mecha-Karl Marx and his hordes of communist, Injun, collectivist, pointy-headed liberal elitist Muslim hippies. Instead, the American past is, in part, the story of a nation that proclaimed exceptional and lofty values such as (almost) universal equality, religious pluralism, and the rejection of hereditary monarchies. The other part of the American story, however, involves the long — and often bloody — struggle between the various factions within the United States who sought to make the nation’s lofty founding values into tangible realities for real people — and the factions that opposed such advancements.

By glossing over these real historical struggles, the RNC reduces the study of history to an exercise in mindless patriotism that purports to mean everything while simultaneously meaning nothing at all. In her influential 1994 article “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum argued that a blindly patriotic approach to the world was not only antiquated, but also downright dangerous. Throughout most of their history, Nussbaum writes, Americans have given themselves a false sense of moral and political superiority that has equated “American identity and specifically American citizenship” with “a special salience in moral and political deliberation” and “a special power among the motivations to political action.”

But this type of blind patriotism, Nussbaum warns, prevents a critical examination of America’s many moral failings. “One of the greatest barriers to rational deliberation in politics is the unexamined feeling that one’s own current preferences and ways are neutral and natural,” she writes. “An education that takes national boundaries as morally salient too often reinforces this kind of irrationality, by lending to what is an accident of history a false air of moral weight and glory.” It’s precisely this “false air of moral weight and glory” that the Republican Party wants to propagate by replacing the critical examination of history with Manifest Destiny-style myth-making.

Raphael's famous 1511 frescno, the School of Athens depicts men who dedicated their lives to the Liberal Arts. What a bunch of commies.

Raphael’s famous 1511 fresco the School of Athens depicts men who dedicated their lives to the liberal arts. What a bunch of commies.

The RNC wants to claim that America has been uniquely exceptional in its relentless spreading of “freedom” in the modern era. This is tantamount to demanding that the U.S. be shielded from the necessary historical criticism that sheds light on the wrongs and misconceptions of the past. But historians study the past so that those same wrongs and misconceptions won’t be repeated in the present and the future. The Republican vision of American Exceptionalism, therefore, ignores America’s internal struggles with racism, genocide, sexism, inequality, political corruption, and imperialism — all struggles that place America squarely within, not outside of, the broader trajectory of world history.

By ignoring the messy reality of the past, the RNC seeks to inculcate students with the notion that “America is the greatest, so don’t suggest otherwise!” But this type of thinking only conditions people to not question ANYTHING. As the eminent historian Eric Foner writes in The Story of American Freedom, U.S. history is “a tale of debates, disagreements, and struggles rather than a set of timeless categories or an evolutionary narrative toward a preordained goal.”* Indeed, “freedom” has always been a contested concept. Foner notes that, “discussions of freedom are inescapably political,” because “under almost any definition they lead directly to questions concerning how public institutions and economic and social relations affect the nature and extent of the options available to individuals.”*

Making students think that America has been exceptional — that it can do no wrong — will effectively create a compliant populace that won’t worry about how “public institutions and economic and social relations” affect “the options available to individuals.” After all, individuals who lack a solid understanding of the real struggles and conflicts that have been waged in the name of “freedom” throughout U.S. history won’t be inclined to view themselves as agents who can take part in those ongoing struggles. That is why good history matters; it’s why the liberal arts matter, and it’s why the RNC should STFU.

* See Martha Nussbaum, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” Boston Review, Oct. 1, 1994.

* See Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), xiv, xix.

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82 Comments

  1. The fact that the National Association of Scholars supports the RNCs assault on the College Board should tell you a lot. First, anyone can be in the NAS. So much for scholarship. Second, very few scholars are in the NAS and very few historians. The few that are in the NAS are all hard core right wing historians whose interpretations of history are usually torn to pieces by the lack of context, and “questionable” (read: lack of) use of facts to support their opinions which more often than not support their political ideology to a T.

    The RNC and the conservatives want a stupid America. That’s the demographic they cater to. They promote anti-intellectualism and attack the humanities because they don’t want people to ask questions. That would be dangerous. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would reject these tinfoil hat wearing demagogues in less than a New York minute.

    • Here, here. And the worst thing about right-wing humanities bashing is how much Americans lap it up. As if the only goal in life were to feed the corporate trough with more labor. Imagine what Aristotle would say, let alone Jefferson and Adams.

    • I think part of the problem for the RNC is that the pedagogical model is not one they like. They prefer what Paulo Freire called the banking model where they control the students via the power relationship. Education is shifting away from that model because it is not conducive to a learning atmosphere. When the teacher-student relationship is changed and the power transferred from the teacher to the student (as much as possible, let’s be real here), the students have significantly increased learning results.

      This is Critical Pedagogy. For our field it means transformative learning via problem posing to students allowing them to use what they’ve learned, what sources they have, and the instructor as a guide to solve those problems. They do this via historical analysis. It promotes critical thinking skills. The RNC is made up of conservatives. who do not want any type of change. They want to retain the traditional pedagogical model which is inefficient, but keeps power in the hands of the gatekeepers.

      In other words, them. This is more of the culture war stuff. It ties right into our ongoing CW battles with the Causers. When you use facts and historical analysis the Lost Cause collapses like the house of cards it is. When you use facts and historical analysis you cannot control the past. No wonder the RNC and the NAS do not want the new AP course. They really do not want thinkers and problem solvers. This goes into education itself.

      The bad news for the RNC: Education is inherently liberal. K-12 teachers are rolling out every year with this pedagogical model and putting it to use. They can’t stop progress so their complaint is going to fail.

      • Jimmy, those are some good points about critical pedagogy. When I taught a course last year, the “best” moments, so to speak, were those open class discussions in which the students had read assigned primary sources, considered them in the context of the course topic (which was violence in the 19th century world) and made their own connections based on critical approaches to the information.

        What was even more interesting is that, I taught a section on the Civil War to Canadian students at the University of Calgary, and when we discussed secession and then, post-war lynching, more than one student suggested that the Democrats of the 19th century are now the modern-day Republicans. I cautioned them about making what is, in many ways, a simplistic (if somewhat reasonable) connection, but nonetheless, why would they come to that conclusion? I think you know the answer.

        I work in consulting now because I don’t particularly care for teaching, but one of the most rewarding aspects of when I did teach was precisely that critical component of learning, which conservatives just hate.

      • There’s two separate issues here. The first is that a large part of the Republican Party is hostile to critical thinking and admitting that America can be just as flawed as any nation.
        The second problem is that the social sciences are dominated by professors that are overwhelmingly liberal. As Jarret Crawford has demonstrated, this has negative consequences and it can’t been hand waived by saying, as Jimmy Dick did, that education is inherently liberal.
        http://www.sydneysymposium.unsw.edu.au/2014/chapters/JussimSSSP2014.pdf
        For history to work, it requires different perspectives, different viewpoints. Because critical thinking doesn’t work if people are unaware of their own biases.

        • That’s a fair point regarding the over-representation of liberals in the Social Sciences, but I think when Jimmy says that “education is inherently liberal,” he’s not just referring to political liberalism in the Lockian sense; rather, he’s also referring to “liberal” in the small “l” dictionary-sense that entails being “open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.” Conservatives, in general, are often hostile to various types of openness (hence their proclivity towards fundamentalism in religion, politics, social relations, economics, etc.), and they tend to be suspicious of those who question tradition and authority. This is why you don’t find as many conservatives in the humanities (although there are some there), since critical thinking often leads to questioning and challenging established norms that often threaten conservatives in positions of power.

          Take the Texas Republican Party’s platform of openly opposing “critical thinking skills.” The reasoning they gave for this opposition was that critical thinking leads to “challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” Every time traditional authority is threatened, rightly or wrongly, conservatives push back, not coincidently because THEY are usually in positions of authority. And while most SS professors and educators are probably liberal, they don’t wield anything close to the level of socio-political influence that you find among lobbyists, bankers, industrial titans, MBAs, economics professors, etc., — all of whom, I would argue, have tremendous power to shape U.S. culture at the moment, usually in conservative directions.

  2. I simply want to say, “Excellent post.” While reading it a quote from George Santayana came to mind: “A country without a memory is a country of madmen.” The RNC and the conservative movement in general are peddlers of myth and have no inclination for history.

    • Hey, thanks for reading and for the compliment! And the Santayana quote is very appropriate. When I look at the current U.S. Congress, I can’t help but feel that the madmen have triumphed.

    • And those who forget the past are destined to repeat it. History is the bedrock of all learning. And it can be fun. Government s hate it because it encourages independent thinking. scary stuff!

      • Not just governments: any organizations with vested power hate the idea of independent thinking, especially corporate power structures. Thanks for reading!

        • Exactly, it’s not just the RNC that wants to brainwash the population, it’s every corporate business, every power hungry government that seeks control. Even some “liberal” institutions are instituting political agendas in our nations schools!

  3. In reference to Michael and Jarretr’s replies to my comment about education being inherently liberal I say this. The sheer act of education is liberalizing. The pedagogy is changing today because it has to. It has no choice. Why? Because American business from mom and pop shops to global corporations are demanding people who can think. They’re screaming for them. These businesses have to hire people to get engineers to be able to communicate. Why?

    The answer is because they’re taught all the STEM courses, but not how to communicate. They know engineering, but can’t write anything down so that anyone can understand them. I was at a faculty meeting today for our college. The course on creativity was wonderful. The instructor has a son working for Samsung in Kansas City. He is one of TWO Americans working for the company in their department which has over 1000 people working in it. Think about that….TWO Americans. They want to hire Americans but can’t because they cannot communicate what they knew or do with anyone.

    They know theory. They know design. They know their technology. However, so do all these other people who can communicate what they have learned with each other. This is a common theme for American companies. We are radically changing pedagogy in our schools because we are being told flat out by the people who hire our students to give them men and women who can think. We cannot do that without teaching critical thinking skills. That is the bottom line and the RNC needs to pay attention to that.

    I really think this is nothing more than the usual lip service to make the extremists feel warm and fuzzy. The money from the corporations is going to go to the schools who send them graduates who can think. With the way the GOP wants to end college funding the corporations are going to get what they want. Supply and demand works well and they demand a supply that we have to deliver or they will find schools that do.

    That pedagogy is a liberating pedagogy. We instructors are reducing our power over students from being a sage on the stage to one where we guide the students through the analytic process. This is a liberal education development and it is here to stay. It is not just in the US either. It is global. In fact, the US has been slow to adapt to it which is having a negative effect here in the US.

    You want to get in the right and left of politics in education, that’s an entire chapter, but history teachers used to run the gamut of the spectrum. They are Liberal today because today’s conservatives (at least the Teabagger variety and those even farther to the right) have pushed moderate conservatives to the left OR labeled them as leftists. You find far more of them in the middle than you think, but again, they’re being pushed to the left by a far more conservative GOP that fails to suit their own interests which is all about education. Why would anyone vote for a party or a wing of the party that wants to wipe out their income, attacks them for their ability to think, and tries to tell them (people who have spent years learning history) what to think and how to teach?

    • I haven’t seen that documentary yet but I’m totally gonna’ watch it now. Your point about the “City upon a Hill” nonsense is right on target. A few months back I wrote an article for Salon that ties the Puritan nonsense to the rise of Young Earth creationists like Ken Ham. This stuff is endemic in the U.S. today.

      • Excuse me, the documentary is entitled “The Revisionaries.” It is on Netflix.

        It is rather curious, it talks about the Texas textbook revisions and the fight to stop it. The sciences, have a firm lobbyist group that fought a lot of the revision attempts. However, history was absolutely raped. Some of the science lobbyists even tried to help out but they were limited in what they could fight. It’s sort of sad.

        There is a NOVA documentary that deals with Creationist revisionism on YouTube. It deals specifically with the Dover, PA trial a few years back.

        I put a lot of emphasis on the “City Upon a Hill” rhetoric when I teach early colonialism and I refer back to it often. We talk a lot about the American exceptionalism component in our memory of the past. One of the first activities I have my students do is write an essay on why they think Americans ignore barbaric events such as the Pequot Wars, where Pilgrims slaughtered innocent women and children, and embrace the religious freedom seeking rhetoric of the early settlers at Plymouth.

        Many of them this year referred to the City Upon a Hill ideology that we can do no wrong, and even the things we do wrong are based in good intentions. #Murica.

  4. I don’t think that you can emphasize the importance of “American Exceptionalism” enough regardless of what era of U.S. history you’re referring to. I did see the NOVA “Judgement Day” documentary and it was quite good. #Murica indeed.

    • I open up with Chapter One from Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. I go for the throat on Day One. It is part of the first week essay on what happened to Native Americans as the result of Europe’s coming to the Americas. I couple it with some primary sources and use the inquiry based approach so they have to answer a rhetorical question.

      I think the religious folks have a history they want, but it fails to hold up in the inquiry based pedagogy. I really think these people are scared because this pedagogy is all about questioning things. Religious hierarchies do not like questions. I also think they’re not as numerous as people think. The Catholic Church was holding its own in membership for a decade or two, but the fallen away Catholics were growing as the right wing side of the Church dominated it.

      However, Pope Francis has been a fresh force in the Church and people are coming back as a direct result of what he has been saying. It is really angering the right wing of the Church, but they’ve been slowly killing it for a long time with their lack of vision and insistence upon tradition. You can feel the difference with Francis. I think the evangelical religions are suffering the same problem. Their leaders aren’t focusing on the faith, but on other things. They’re losing members left and right because they’ve gotten off track with things that the younger members just don’t agree with.

      Basically younger people ask questions and the traditionalists don’t have answers. They do not like being asked questions and the result is young people staying home or going where their questions get answered. Faiths shift and evangelicals should understand that by studying history. The problem is their historical model doesn’t include that many facts. There is a reason why schisms occur in religions. Power is one reason. Satisfying the members of the church is another. They will go somewhere else.

  5. And the fact that you can use Zinn’s book without any sense of irony is proof that the conservatives DO have a point. Zinn describes Mao’s China as “in the hands of a revolutionary movement, the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government, independent of outside control. ” Would you use a text book that described Hitler’s Germany as “the closest thing to a people’s government” in the history of Germany or a text book that described the Confederacy as “the closest thing to a people’s government” in the South, regardless of how accurate it was in other areas? (If you have used similar textbooks, then, my apologies.) Zinn is just as bad the American Exceptionalists, in the opposite way.
    And that’s why critical thinking alone is useless. Like Richard Feynman pointed out, critical thinking only works if you’re willing to subject your OWN ideas to scrutiny, as well as those of your enemies. Because the easiest person to fool is you.

    • Apparently you don’t know the history of China very well. Zinn was right. That doesn’t make the Chinese government a great government, but Zinn wasn’t saying that was he? I think you’re still stuck with the image of Communism = Bad which has been burned into the American psyche for a long time.

  6. OK, let’s look at the full context of what Zinn wrote, “In China, a revolution was already under way when World War II ended, led by a Communist movement with enormous mass support. A Red Army, which had fought against the Japanese, now fought to oust the corrupt dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, which was supported by the United States. The United States, by 1949, had given $2 billion in aid to Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, but, according to the State Department’s own White Paper on China, Chiang Kai-shek’s government had lost the confidence of its own troops and its own people. In January 1949, Chinese Communist forces moved into Peking, the civil war was over, and China was in the hands of a revolutionary movement, the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government, independent of outside control. ”
    That sure makes it sound like Zinn was portraying the Communists positively.
    But wait a second, let’s look at another of Zinn’s writings- earlier, during the Vietnam War, Zinn wrote “Maoist China with all its faults is preferable to the rule of Chiang” . I could go on and on but the point is that Zinn constantly made excuses for Mao.
    And, yes, there have been relatively benign Communist regimes but Stalin’s, Mao’s., etc. aren’t among them. I think you’re still stuck with the image of Stalinist/Maoist sympathizers= Good which has been burned into the leftist psyche for a long time.

    • Zinn was correct. Mao’s rule was preferable to Chiang’s for many Chinese. A totalitarian ruler is a totalitarian ruler regardless of their political ideology. Chiang was a dictator and just as bad if not worse for the Chinese than the communists have ever been in China.

      I don’t know anyone personally who thinks Stalin and Mao were equatable with what we here in America consider good, but then when you look at the history of those nations consider who you are comparing them with. There is a reason people supported those regimes. There is a reason why Putin’s regime has a lot of support (as lousy as his regime is).

      The problem with the right is they automatically consider anything communist to be bad. They’ve been indoctrinated to think that way. That is not the way things actually are. Most of the left does not like communism either. However, marxist ideas predate Marx. All one has to do is look at the American Revolution and see ideas that can be called socialist.

  7. I probably agreed with Zinn about politics much more than I didn’t. I suspect I marched in a few of the same marches he did. However, the more time I spend trying to assess People’s History, the more I’m convinced it’s just a terrible work of history. I found Sam Wineburg’s essay on it very much worth reading: https://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/winter1213/Wineburg.pdf
    Michael Kazin’s essay in Dissent is also very much worth reading: http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/howard-zinns-history-lessons

    • Zinn has a place in terms of discussing U.S. historiography, but his scholarship is pretty flawed in a lot of respects. Nonetheless, he did introduce ideas and concepts that other historians have run with over the last few decades. You can also discuss his work with students without teaching it as gospel, of course.

      • It is becoming dated. The idea is there, but let’s be real. 1492 to 1980 in one book? Come on! He focused on one side of history and in 1980 that really broke the bottom up approach out to a wide audience. That was 34 years ago though. I find it useful to use pieces of Zinn, but not the whole thing. I think his chapter one is good because it opens up history for people and gets them to realize there are multiple perspectives on history. For a first year survey course that is a pretty big leap for most students.

        As to assigning it for the entire semester? No. It falls short in that regard. I have so much content for the survey courses that I have to consciously limit how much I put out or I overwhelm them. However, when you use an inquiry based pedagogical model to work with you have to provide multiple streams of content for them to work with. I run four forum questions out there for my online version so I don’t have 25 students trying to say the same thing in different ways. It spreads the learning out.

  8. I’ve got Wineburg’s dissent. Two quick things. One is Sam wrote on it 33 years later. Also, Sam is looking at the issue through the eyes of an educator using a very good inquiry driven pedagogical model which I am also using in my classes (and is why I only use Chapter One from Zinn’s book). I definitely see what Sam is saying because the model uses a different approach. But the key here is that Sam is looking at it only as an educational textbook. Howard did not write it to be one. It was turned into one by others.

  9. I don’t think (all) people are saying that liberal arts subjects themselves are bad – just that it is “useless” to get a formal degree in those subjects – since they don’t teach you hard skills. However, I have seen many l.a. degrees go into good careers, and it is still an education, in my opinion. As for many Republican politicians, a lot of them also want to cut funding for academic scientific research (my field), so their arguments are empty.

    • Those are good points, but, as you note, there should be a balance between having hard skills and skills in critical inquiry. Believe me, there are plenty of people out there who have hard skills but lack some serious critical thinking abilities. As for the Republicans coming after scientific research: seriously, are they good for anything?!

  10. As a History MA student about to embark on a PhD studying welfare history at a British university, I really enjoyed reading this.

  11. Excellent post. The idea of patriotism is fascinating. I never thought about it before my (British) husband pointed it out, but even the fact that we have to sing the national anthem at every sporting event is a foreign concept to much of the world. It is cult-like.

  12. As a History major and someone who doesn’t try to deny reality so it’ll suit me, I need to say thank you. Just because American history isn’t 100% glorious doesn’t mean historians are up to no good. The liberal arts are needed so we can remember to be human and what it means to be human. Keep on writing.

  13. Reblogged this on ethoslogopath and commented:
    Interesting perspective. As a student of the liberal arts, I find others with this education share a big picture perspective that is lacking today and has been dismissed as simply the creation of useless “idea fairies”. Cogdom…oh the superior alternative….

  14. Reblogged this on Sadie in the Raw… and commented:
    This gentleman really hit it on the nail, I have to share! I would hate to see a society in which people are no longer able to choose a course of study so as not to live like sheep.

  15. Your post casts fresh light, for me, on something I have often seen historically – certainly here in New Zealand. History is one of the few fields where the nature of how we study it – how we build our interpretative frameworks – is, itself, a fertile topic of debate. For me, the post-grad degree I did on the philosophy of history remains one of my pivotal learning experiences. I learned from Peter Munz, student of Popper; and the essence of what he said boiled down to understanding abstraction, to distancing the analysis from direct emotional involvement. And yet this robust scholarship seems not to surface in the practical expression of the past, when it is re-purposed by contemporary non-historians for their own purposes. Usually to justify a current position. It happened in Roman times. It has happened since. And it is as true today, here in New Zealand, as it seems true in the United States. Indeed, here, presentism has been as much a scourge of the profession as it has of the non-historical community, driven to a large extent by a conscious effort to undo the wrongs of an often distasteful colonial past. A worthy goal today, absolutely – essential and necessary. But we should not re-write history along the way.

    As you say, and as I have long believed, history is really about understanding the present – about understanding the shapes and patterns of the past in their own terms; and about understanding how those patterns moved forwards to build the present.

    Great post – and you’ve given me a good deal of insight into US historical thinking. Thank you.

    • Well thanks so much for the compliments and for reading. Although I hope you don’t mean to tell me that New Zealand is engaged in the same kind of historical butchery that is going on in the U.S. I hope not, anyway. And you’re right, history is first and foremost about the past but it really encompasses all time: we study the past to understand the present with an eye towards the future. Thanks for reading!

  16. I’m one of those “in the middle” history teachers. My class motto is this: “I don’t expect you to think like me, but I do expect you to think.”

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Well, thank you for reading my thoughts! As you know, the job of any good teacher is to present all available information, not sugar-coat it because it’s unpleasant.

  17. I apologise for not having time to read any more than the first two paragraphs of the Post itself, and none of the Comments. I simply wish to say that History is part of Politics and that it is vital for voters and politicians to be aware of past human crimes against humanity. Now that even the most economy-obsessed members of Parliament or Congress have come out and confessed that we are in a World War, the press and the population need to see that Religion (the greatest driver of events amongst human societies) is the Number One subject. History is what we are making as we deal with, or fail to deal with, the challenge of the lash-back against secularism and the salvation it offered, hopefully still offers. That’s the best I can do. I won’t bother to read it.

  18. Drat! I went and read it. English (not Mandarin) is essential to future world peace thru understanding. Art is garbage, Formal education in introverted places that self-preen with courses and tests, beyond the age of puberty, and rather than in the home and community whilst being in paid employment, via the internet screen and the printed page, is counter-productive and holds people back. Sorry for this PS. I must rush off and do some more of my Blog (it is garbage, which I am addicted to).

  19. Here here! By George, (not Bush), I think you have it!
    Great post,and I was instantly reminded of a conversation with a wonderful young lady. Not sure how the conversation started,but I had stated that not all teachers know ALL things, as they seem to propose to their students daily. So she proceeded to explain that she had such a run in with one suchlike:
    That having explained to her teacher that a rectangle can not be neatly folded at a diagonal to form two identically even triangles, she could show her that it was not true.
    Hence, she foldedva puece of paper.
    She was later then sent to disciplinary.
    I’m afraid that many of our teachers are already falling suit with the RNP.
    “If I have the authority, than I cannot be wrong.”

    But, that just is not so. Many peoples of authoritarian titles have been DEAD wrong, and I hope that this will remind those reading, ACTUALLY reading things of importance, to fight for the right to knowledge. For themselves and those that follow. Because trust this history: he children ARE our future, we were kids once. Now, who’s in charge?

    • Indeed, fighting for the right to knowledge is absolutely essential to having an educated populace. There’s nothing wrong with disagreement, as long as all the information is made available. Thanks for reading!

  20. In an interesting development over on J.L. Bell’s website (highly recommended) it appears that we may have an ulterior motive behind the dissatisfaction with the AP History course. http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-5-page-topic-outline-and-98-page.html

    Mr. Thomas Krieger appears to be making the comments against the AP History revision at least as far back as March of this year. His criticisms were being featured on website and publications of right leaning groups of all kinds. Now, Mr. Krieger is a retired AP History course instructor with 35 years of experience. So his skill as an instructor is not at question. What is at question is the financial reasons behind the criticism.

    You see, Mr. Krieger owns and operates a company Inside Test Prep; http://insidertestprep.com/ that generates substantial revenue from the sale of AP History course study guides and aids. It also sells ACT and SAT study guides and this is a big business for many companies.

    Changing the pedagogical model of the AP History course effectively wipes out Inside Test Prep’s revenue stream from the sale of materials for the course. It is worthwhile to remark that when the College Board modified the SAT several years ago the same companies squawked about that change.

    This leads us to a question about ethics. Are the accusations by Mr. Krieger founded in reality or are they founded in the fear of his financial cash flow being negatively impacted?

    Mr. Krieger’s article on the revision can be found here. http://heartland.org/policy-documents/analysis-college-board-ap-us-history-framework

    If Mr. Krieger’s attacks on the AP History course are rooted in his financial gain, then this is a serious violation of ethical behavior and one that is being ignored in favor of political rhetoric.

    • Now there’s some fine investigative reporting, Jimmy. Quite often, if you follow the money, you’ll see where the ideology is coming from.

  21. The importance of the humanities really can’t be stated enough, although I don’t think that the push to downplay them can be blamed exclusively on the Republicans; probably for somewhat different reasons, the Democrats often cast higher education as vocational as well (witness: the whole “art history” comment). That said, the particular problems you pointed out in this post are serious ones; I have two degrees in English (BA and MA) and when I started working on teacher certification, I was absolutely dismayed to find out what the high school curriculum looks like in some states (namely, an excuse to praise the free market, question the separation of church and state, and totally eliminate any discussion of issues related to gender).

    • One of the biggest things I find being mentioned by those who dislike current history scholarship is the Gender, Race, and Class histories. They hate it with an unholy passion. You quickly realize they are stuck on Great Man, political, military, and top down history. The second thing I find is that almost 97% of all people criticizing historical scholarship have no degrees in history or education. It is a very one dimensional group out there that oppose historians and their work.

      • You’re totally spot-on there. To some people, the idea that women have played a role in history (since, you know, they’re half the population) is unfathomable. They’d rather read another Patton or Stonewall Jackson biography. Secondly, “almost 97% of all people criticizing historical scholarship have no degrees in history or education.” Isn’t that the major problem in higher ed now with the rise of the administrative management class?

      • Definitely true, and it’s not just the people who are criticizing. I’m currently living in Texas, and at the risk of sounding elitist, I find it pretty appalling that the state social studies curriculum was entirely overhauled in 2010 by a board with not one historian, economist, etc. I’m all for having an elected board of education, but when you have teachers and other subject experts decrying what you’re doing, there’s a problem.

    • Yes, you’re certainly right that the Republicans aren’t exclusively to blame, but the example you cite of the president mocking Art History is more symptomatic of the ever wishy-washy Democratic Party letting the right-wing frame the cultural narrative and then trying to play catch-up. And you couldn’t be more right about education curriculums: at this point, we’re a society that only values human worth in terms of monetary calculations. Anything else that might signal an expanded life: the arts, literature, history, heck, even science when it cuts across the “market consensus” (see warming, global) is now deemed “useless” or “dangerous” because heaven forbid that Americans learn to think critically and appreciate life beyond monetary exchanges. Do I sound pessimistic? I need to work on that. Thanks for your comment and for reading.

      • Right–I also suspect that in Obama’s case in particular, the tendency to downplay the liberal arts is tied to a broader effort to avoid charges of elitism–as if knowledge of these things is inherently the purview of the rich and idle, rather than something that should be available to everyone (again, as you said, a matter of framing). I’ve become increasingly pessimistic as well, but I definitely enjoyed the read!

  22. Tamsin,
    I feel sorry for you. I am in Missouri and the GOP dominated legislature would love to do the same thing here. You had David Barton behind the scenes inserting all kinds of things that are just not correct. The religious folks up here would like to get into it, but they’re kept out at the moment. That could change. They would all love to force colleges to follow their blatantly incorrect history concepts, but fortunately we can do better at the moment.

    When you look behind the scenes of the attempts to wipe out teacher tenure, teacher unions, and in a situation here, to eliminate educators from political speech, you find the same people trying to control education and insert their dogma. That’s why I love to post “A Catholic Bible Only!” on all the posts the idiots make that say Bibles should be in school. That opens up the doors so that people can see what is really going on.

    While today it is just a bible, tomorrow it will be right back to being a specific one and followers of other faiths and doctrines will find themselves being marginalized in favor of a specific faith which is why the founders expressly wanted religion out of government. They knew the score.

    Don’t worry, we’ve already told the GOP we will take the case directly to the Supreme Court for its overturning on First Amendment rights. Of course based upon the stuff they’ve passed recently they just don’t care. They only pay lip service to the Constitution and then wonder why their legislation gets thrown out in the courts.

  23. This is a great read. Why anyone can’t see the importance of understanding history to the best reckoning shows a lack of intelligence. Thanks for writing.

  24. Reblogged this on A vision for 2020 Blog and commented:
    An accurate version of history is among the most important things to impart to students regardless of political affiliation. A party that resembles the party in 1984 by subverting history like the ministry of Truth should lose it’s credibility as a runnable platform.

  25. I am a history and political science teacher. No one wants to teach students how to think critically anymore especially those making the rules for educators. Common core standards wants all teachers to teach the same. Much worse- they believe all students learn the same. Absurd! American appears to be heading down a too familiar road like the cultural revolution of Mao Zedong’s school of Thought. The RNC leading the charge of course. Controlling what and how teachers teach is that first step to purging political differences. As a Historian, I see the past coming back to haunt us. Add that to the price of higher education, elitism is gaining unwanted power leaving everyone else out. Sounds like the Republican agenda to a T.

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