The New History Wars

Roundup
tags: NCHE, APUSH



James R. Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association.

With the news dominated by stories of Americans dying at home and abroad, it might seem trivial to debate how history is taught in our schools. But if we want students to understand what is happening in Missouri or the Middle East, they need an unvarnished picture of our past and the skills to understand and interpret that picture. People don’t kill one another just for recreation. They have reasons. Those reasons are usually historical.  

Last month, the College Board released a revised “curriculum framework” to help high school teachers prepare students for the Advanced Placement test in United States history. Like the college courses the test is supposed to mirror, the A.P. course calls for a dialogue with the past — learning how to ask historical questions, interpret documents and reflect both appreciatively and critically on history. 

Navigating the tension between patriotic inspiration and historical thinking, between respectful veneration and critical engagement, is an especially difficult task, made even more complicated by a marked shift in the very composition of “we the people.” This fall, whites will constitute a minority of public-school students in the United States. “Our” past is now more diverse than we once thought, whether we like it or not.

It turns out that some Americans don’t like it. A member of the Texas State Board of Education has accused the College Board of “promoting among our students a disdain for American principles and a lack of knowledge of major American achievements,” like those of the founding fathers and of the generals who fought in the Civil War and World War II. The Republican National Committee says the framework offers “a radically revisionist view”that “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history.” Stanley Kurtz, in National Review, called it “an attempt to hijack the teaching of U.S. history on behalf of a leftist political and ideological perspective.”

Disagreement is not a bad thing. But learning history means engaging with aspects of the past that are troubling, as well as those that are heroic...




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