Twenty years after Lynne Cheney criticized the U.S. National History Standards for their "grim and gloomy" view of American history, the Republican National Committee is now critiquing the College Board's new framework for AP US History as portraying "a consistently negative view of American history." Two days ago, James R. Grossman of the American Historical Association wrote a thoughtful op-ed piece in the New York Times about the controversy that was criticized yesterday by Stanley Kurtz in the National Review.
History is a contentious subject. What is taught, how it is taught and what is left out matters. But what all the reformers, textbook companies, the College Board, politicians and pundits forget about is how students see things. And all the fighting about whether we should include this famous person or another really begs the question of what students actually learn.
Larry Krieger and Jane Robbins, two vocal critics of the new APUSH Framework write that its redesign is "leftist nonsense." Krieger points out that "The redesigned Framework omits Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Dorothea Dix, William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Jonas Salk, Rosa Parks, Dwight Eisenhower, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other notable American heroes." (quoted here).
Let's examine this list in a little more detail. Take Jonas Salk, for example. I do not dispute that Jonas Salk is a "notable American hero" and we should know about him. But where, exactly, does he belong in a U.S. history curriculum? If we don't want our history classes to be focused on the memorization of facts and details, exactly what should be taught about Jonas Salk and when and where? Should he be mentioned in a lesson on F.D.R. in the context of Roosevelt's polio? And if he is merely "mentioned," does that does the subject justice? Should we instead include an in-depth, entire lesson on vaccination and the eradication of childhood diseases? Or should we just throw him in on a lesson on famous American inventors? And how will we avoid turning a lesson like that into a mere memorization exercise, where the teacher either lectures on a bunch of famous inventors and the students fill out a chart to accompany it? If students did research online to learn about different inventors would it be any better? Or would that still just be looking up a bunch of people and copying it down on a chart? I'm not disputing the profound significance of Jonas Salk--I just raise the issue of what we all mean when we say our curriculum should include famous person A or important event B or noteworthy document C.
Let's take another one: William Lloyd Garrison. Let's say you do a lesson in which students read the deservedly famous piece he wrote in his first issue of The Liberator. When the test or essay or DBQ or authentic assessment rolls around, let's say a student didn't remember that William Lloyd Garrison was the author, but the student offered a cogent discussion of this famous document and explain the impact of abolitionists on the antislavery movement and the eventual abolition of slavery? Wouldn't that be as (or more) important than being able to identify William Lloyd Garrison as its author?
Let's take two more: the two that are trotted out every 3rd week in January or during Black history month in schools around the country: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. I'd be surprised that any U.S. history teacher would leave them out, but I am more concerned by the fact that too often, the Civil Rights movement is boiled down to ONLY Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. And, to make matters worse, it is often a one-dimensional look at King and Parks. Year after year, in schools around the country, kids are taught the flawed and grossly oversimplified account of Rosa Parks being too tired to move to the back of the bus and--at least according to my 2 kids--every year they hear the same passage from King's "I Have a Dream Speech." They rarely hear the whole speech. And too few teachers go on to teach about how King's vision changed over time--how his experience fighting discrimination in Chicago and the expansion of U.S. involvement in Vietnam led to him to bring up economic inequality and broader issues? Why not have students hear or read other famous King speeches? I worry that by the time students make it to high school U.S. history class, King's "I Have a Dream Speech" has become a tired cliche because they hear it too often, with too little context. (Note: I have since elaborated on this particular set of problems in this post on "8 Mistakes Teachers Make When Teaching the Civil Rights Movement.")
So while the politicians and pundits debate what should be taught, let's think more carefully about HOW we teach what we decide to teach. And, if history is so critical to the future of our republic, let's involve our students in this controversy. Have students weigh in on whether a particular period is "grim and gloomy" or exemplifies America at its best, or--what is likely more accurate, something in between. Good history should be both dark and uplifting. But too many kids still say that history class is boring. If it's boring, they tune out. And if they tune out, it doesn't matter if you mention Jonas Salk or not, because they won't be paying attention.