Don’t Know Much Revisionist History

Conservatives are appalled by changes to the AP U.S. history exam. Which is funny, because the changes are hardly revolutionary. 

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History education matters because history is one way we understand ourselves and our place in the world.

Photo by monkeybusinessimages/Thinkstock

In 2010, Virginia gave a new history textbook to its fourth-graders: Our Virginia: Past and Present. Written by Joy Masoff—an author, but not a trained historian—she deals with the usual founding facts of commonwealth history: Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, Thomas Jefferson, and the Revolution.

But when Masoff gets to the Civil War, she goes off the rails. “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in Confederate ranks,” she writes, “including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” Historians in the state were appalled. Not only was there little evidence of mass voluntary participation among blacks in the Confederate war effort, but the Jackson line is pure fantasy. In fact, Masoff copied the claim from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that insists on the reality of black Confederate soldiers, and whose in-house historian, Charles Kelly Barrow, argued the point in a book called Black Confederates.

Mainstream historians dismiss the claim, but it’s easy to see how it persists. In a world where black soldiers willingly fought for the Confederacy, your beliefs are vindicated. Suddenly, the Confederate cause is noble—a fight for freedom against invaders, not a struggle in defense of slavery. Or, as Yale historian David Blight told the Washington Post, “This isn’t just about the legitimacy of the Confederacy, it’s about the legitimacy of the emancipation itself.”

History education doesn’t matter because of particular names and dates; it matters because history is one way we understand ourselves and our place in the world. If the Sons of Confederate Veterans believe in the myth of the black Confederate, it’s because they also believe in the nobility of their predecessors, and the two are connected. Likewise, if historians want to strike Masoff’s sentence from the record (which they eventually did), it’s because they’re committed to giving kids a fuller—and sometimes unflattering—story of Virginia’s history.

But history has always been a clash for control of the narrative—a place where we fight to define our identity. Given the stakes, conflict is inevitable, even when the tweaks are minor. Take Advanced Placement United States history. A university-style course for ambitious high-schoolers, it’s managed by the College Board, which prepares the year-end test and issues guidelines for teaching the course. Last month, the College Board released a new “curriculum framework” to help teachers shape material and prepare their students for the test. “In line with college and university U.S. history survey courses’ increased focus on early and recent American history and decreased emphasis on other areas,” explains the College Board, “the AP U.S. History course expands on the history of the Americas from 1491 to 1607 and from 1980 to the present.”

The particular change is a greater focus on women and minorities, with thematic questions like “How have gender, class, ethnic, religious, regional, and other group identities changed in different eras?” and “How and why have moral, philosophical, and cultural values changed in what would become the United States?” At the end of the course, students are expected to do things like “Explain how conceptions of group identity and autonomy emerged out of cultural interactions between colonizing groups, Africans, and American Indians in the colonial era” and “Explain how the U.S. involvement in global conflicts in the 20th century set the stage for domestic social changes.”

History teachers aside, most of the rest of the world shrugged. But conservatives noticed, and they were furious. The framework, resolved the Republican National Committee, is a “radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”

“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,’ ” wrote conservative groups American Principles in Action and Concerned Women for America in a joint open letter to the College Board. “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.’ ”

National Review has been on a crusade against the new guidelines, with Stanley Kurtz warning, “This Framework will effectively force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a leftist perspective,” and that the guidelines can “only be interpreted as an attempt to hijack the teaching of U.S. history on behalf of a leftist political and ideological perspective.” He continues: “The College Board has drastically eroded the freedom of states, school districts, teachers, and parents to choose the history they teach their children.”

In the latest shot against the test, Tennessee lawmakers have urged the state board of education to review the framework and materials. “There are many concerns with the new [AP U.S. history] framework, not the least of which is that it pushes a revisionist interpretation of historical facts,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham in a statement on Tuesday. “The items listed as required knowledge have some inclusions which are agenda-driven, while leaving out basic facts that are very important to our nation’s history.”

Sixty years ago, an academic focus on women and minorities was radical. Then, for instance, students learned a “Lost Cause” history of events like the Civil War, where “states’ rights” were the aim and Reconstruction was a corrupt, wrong-headed disaster. Today, after decades of revision and correction, it’s banal. To say—as the College Board does—that the British system of slavery was “reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority” is to cover territory mined and accepted in the 1970s.

The same goes for the description of Manifest Destiny. In What Hath God Wrought, his contribution to the Oxford History of the United States, historian Daniel Walker Howe describes the 19th-century slogan as a justification for policies that were “permeated” with the “assumption of white supremacy.” “It never occurred to U.S. policymakers,” notes Howe, “to take seriously the claims of nonwhite or racially mixed societies to territorial integrity.” Teaching this is an assault on historical standards if your goal is a pleasing hagiography of the United States, not a serious look at our national actions and collective beliefs.

With that said, the standards are still filled with traditional history. The claim that students are losing the core ideas of American history education is false. In the AP U.S history practice exam, students are asked to read quotes from Capt. John Smith, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ronald Reagan. They discuss topics like the Great Awakening and American intervention in World War II, and have to grapple with rhetoric from Thomas Paine. The essay questions deal with democracy, the American frontier, national identity, and global American leadership. The guidelines are long, but I recommend you read the test, or even take it. I did, and I found a balanced look at the full scope of American history, not a left-wing tirade against the nation’s sins.

Indeed, if you were going to go the Howard Zinn route, you’d have a course dedicated to the slave-owning hypocrisy of the Founders, the extermination of Native Americans, the gross oppression of women, the brutality of the Confederacy, the anti-black terror of Reconstruction, the anti-Chinese mobs in California, the labor suppression of the Gilded Age, the bloody occupation of the Philippines, the lynchings and white race riots of the early 20th century, the Japanese internment, and the general extent to which white supremacy was the ruling ideology of American elites for the better part of 200 years. Conservatives are angry with the College Board standards? They’d have rage strokes at what actual lefties would do to American history curriculums.

But then, so would I. For as much as those are important facts of history that deserve a full accounting in classrooms, a course devoted to our moral failures is as blinkered and unsatisfying as a course devoted to a morality tale of American goodness and American freedom.

What students need—and what the College Board has tried to give—is a history that tells a fair and complex story of America, a country born of lofty goals that it still struggles to fulfill. As adult citizens, we should want the same. The fairy tales of our youth may feel good, but a real grappling with our history is what we need to move forward.