I’m a teacher, not a priest.

Pulling this up top again for the evening. GOP Sen. Joe Kyrillos’ criticism that course material in Advance Placement U.S. History lacks the kind of unthinking, surface-patriotic American exceptionalism that conservatives feel most comfortable with (my description) gets a solid answer here from Helios, who actually teaches AP U.S. History. – Rosi

NJ State Senator Joe Kyrillos has introduced SR 128 – a non-binding resolution that urges the College Board to revise its framework for the Advanced Placement United States History course. Kyrillos criticizes the framework, claiming that

“…there is an inordinate emphasis on political correctness and so-called balance…”

and

“the AP test doesn’t properly portray our history, the beginnings of our country, its values and its unique role in the world, past and present.”

As an educator for over 25 years  (an AP US History teacher for 8 of them), I am concerned that Kyrillos’ actions and those of his ilk represent an attack on critical thinking and true learning for our nation’s young people. What has become clear to me is that the people attacking the AP curriculum do not really understand it, but even more troubling, they don’t understand what teaching is and what happens in an effective history classroom.

The new AP US History framework emphasizes historical thinking skills over rote memorization of historical dates and facts. Students have the opportunity to answer broad thematic questions using a variety of historical examples – it’s about as far as you can get from a one size fits all approach. What students must do is use historical facts to construct an argument and to critically analyze historical events. Is this what Kyrillos fears? Is he hoping for future generations of students who don’t think? Who don’t question?

The problem with those who critique the teaching of US history is evident in Kyrillos’ quote above. When he says that the AP test doesn’t properly “portray our history” it demonstrates a clear lack of understanding about what teaching is. Portrayal is theater. It’s meant to be seen, absorbed, but not questioned. It’s as if a teacher is supposed to stand in front of the students, perform some unchanging saga of the “true” American story and the students should then be assessed on how much of that saga they have memorized. To my mind, this is much like a religious ritual. And I am supposed to fulfill the role of a priest dispensing some kind of divinely infallible view of American history.

Good history teachers do exactly what the revised AP framework encourages – we provide the students with the skills and background they need to construct their own interpretations of historical events. For example, every year my students discuss and debate Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan. I provide them with a variety of readings, primary sources, and video footage and then they construct their own opinions as to what they think. The students understand there is no “right” or “wrong” answer – the bomb was dropped. It happened. The meaning of it and the lessons we learn from it are decided by the students themselves, but they are decided based on evidence, analysis and argument. Those opinions are all over the spectrum. Some condemn Truman’s decision. Some praise it. It’s not my job to pronounce what’s right or wrong. It IS my job to give them the skills and tools they need to create and defend their interpretations.

My colleagues and I are getting very tired of being called “unpatriotic” and accused of only teaching the “negative” aspects of US history. I’m a teacher, not a priest.  I don’t know or believe in a “true” interpretation of history. My job is not to get kids to memorize a saga, but to get them to think for themselves. That’s what I do. That’s what my colleagues do. And that’s what the new AP framework encourages.

Comments (4)

  1. Alex

    “Portrayal is theater. It’s meant to be seen, absorbed, but not questioned.”

    This is what the right wants to accomplish, an unquestioned hagiography of American history, with teachers nothing more than the appointed guardians of the mythology that must be repeated generation after generation. Any analysis or critical thinking must be suppressed. Kyrillos, with his foray into the culture wars, is effectively advocating just that. For shame.

    Reply
  2. Tom Paine

    Thank you for writing this.

    ALl too often and for far too long, professionals, progressives, and intellectuals have failed to assert a positive argument in favor of enlightenment values, critical thinking, social justice, democracy, and what Popper called the open society.

    In the meantime, the authoritarian right wing and all sorts of crackpots and corporate charlatans have made war on everything we believe in, effectively becoming  fundamentalist American Taliban (some sects even openly call for a State religion – and major factions in the US military call for renewed Crusades, while others seek to impose “intelligent design” in the science curriculum to “refute” Darwin).

    As result, US politics and culture have drifted far to the right – we are very far down the rabbit hole of corporate totalitarianism, police state authoritarianism, and military empire .

    The right’s domination and authoritarian values – because American Exceptionalism and the intellectual model of history you critique are essentially authoritarian, as in based on authority not evidence and critical thinking – are ruining this Country.

    They must be stopped and brave efforts like this are part of the solution to our ills.

    Reply
  3. marshwren

    it teaches them to think.”  Napoleon Bonaparte.

    Reply

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