Historians Poke the Right Wing Hornet’s Nest With a Hot Stick


It’s a measure of the craziness of the American conservative that rational people are dumbfounded when seemingly mundane matters get the Right Wingers all riled up.

Case in point, the outrage last month when the College Board announced a revision of the AP US History (APUSH) framework to bring it more in line with how American history is taught in college nowadays. Fred Anderson, one of the professors involved in the revision, told Denver’s Channel 7 news:

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We were really just trying to do a simple thing, and the vehemence and the anger of the critics did, in fact, take me by surprise,” said Anderson, about the new framework introduced this year. “You see, AP is supposed to be the equivalent of a college course.

Within days of the College Board releasing the new guidelines, conservatives were up in arms, calling the new plan liberal revisionism that diminished the roles of the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Republican National Committee issued a resolution condemning the new APUSH framework, as did some state assemblies (using the same boilerplate, incidentally).

Conservatives on the Jefferson County, CO, school board tried to meddle with the way APUSH would be taught in schools, leading to a walkout by hundreds of teachers and students in late September.

Before I get into this latest culture war nonsense, let’s put things in some perspective.

In 2013 there were 3.4 million high school graduates, according to the US Department of Education.

Of those, about 367,000 took the APUSH exam according to the College Board. That’s about 11% who graduated from high school.

So the conservatives are going nuts over a subject that less than half a million students will take — and ultimately forget once they take the AP exam in May.

It’s yet another example of conservative fantasy running headlong into reality. They don’t deal with it very well.

Conservatives see history as a kind of story that has only one valid interpretation — theirs. Most of us got a traditional narrative of US history when we were in elementary and junior high school: the Pilgrims, the First Thanksgiving, George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and so on. Basically, names, dates, events and a narrative linking them together. That’s the kind of history the cons want for APUSH.

The American Right holds on to its own sparkly version of American history tighter than the NRA holds on to the Second Amendment. Led by nutjobs like David Barton, the right wingers are active in their own revisionism, trying to convince everyone that the Founders of the USA intended the new nation to be Christian Nation, that Church and State were never to be separate, and (unbelievably) that the Bible was the inspiration for Constitution.

In this alternative reality, a God-anointed nation could never have done anything wrong or evil. With God on their side, Americans were entirely justified in pushing the Native Americans aside, enslaving Africans, and going to war with Spain and Mexico to expand our borders.

Oh, and the Civil War (aka the War of Northern Aggression as it’s called in the former Confederate states) was about tariffs and states’ rights, not about that other thing, you know, because the slaves were actually better off in the South that blacks were in the North. [Yes, that’s what the right wingers believe.]

The shorthand for this right wing fantasy is American Exceptionalism. It’s part and parcel of their entire world view. Questioning it is like poking a hornet’s nest with a hot stick.

But, in the real world, historians view the past not as a simple narrative, but as a complex, sometimes dimly seen assortment of puzzle pieces that can be assembled and analyzed in hundreds of ways. That’s what those college history professors do, they try to figure how and why things happened. Then they challenge their students to do the same thing.

Well, guess what, bunkies? The APUSH course is designed to replicate a college history course. Otherwise, colleges would not be willing to hand out college credit to successful test takers.

But the APUSH expectation of students critically analyzing American history runs completely counter to the conservative fantasy, which does not admit that white people from Europe took over the Americas and basically fucked over the locals, then spent a couple hundred years fucking over each other.

Take for example this strawman argument by Stanley Kurtz of the National Review.

What is the core of the American story? What is American history about? For a long time, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was thought to offer the most succinct and profound reply to these questions. The heart of the American story was said to be the Founding, with its principles of liberty and equality. American history was thus a study of our efforts to more fully realize republican principles, often in the face of our own flaws and failings. American history was also about the defense in peace and war of a unique experiment—a nation bound by democratic norms, rather than by ties of blood.

That’s American Exceptionalism in a nutshell, but despite what Kurtz alleges, it’s not the “core of the American story.” Historians have been picking apart the development of the United States for at least a hundred years, and some have been less than flattering in their conclusions.

Reality sucks.

Kurtz seems blissfully unaware of this, suggesting that his last memory of American history lessons are from the third grade.
Incidentally, he does not support any of these contentions later in his essay. If he were my student, I’d give him a C and write CITATION NEEDED over half the paper.

Kurtz goes on with even more argle bargle.

More recently, revisionist historians have developed a different answer to the question of what America’s story is about. From their perspective, at the heart of our country’s history—like the history of any other powerful nation—lies the pursuit of empire, of dominion over others. In this view, the formative American moment was the colonial assault on the Indians. At its core, say the revisionists, America’s history is about our capacity for self-delusion, our endless attempts to justify raw power grabs with pretty fairy-tales about democracy.

Apparently, all this downdinging of the USA has only happened within the last few years, according to Kurtz. Nope. It’s been going on for at least a century, if not more. That’s kinda what historians do.

He then goes on about the “growing dispute” about the new APUSH framework — growing only within RWNJ land — and spends the rest of his essay condemning historical revisionism and continues an earlier Glenn Beck-style connect-the-dots essay connecting evil anti-American revisionists to the APUSH framework. Fred Anderson (mentioned above) is one of those dots.

These are the same people who oppose the teaching of evolution and the Big Bang theory in science classes, who attack the Common Core math curriculum, who want to have Bible lessons in public schools. Now they want to gut the AP US History course to suit their whackjob fantasy.  They will never be satisfied until everyone thinks like they do.

Or at least those half a million high students taking APUSH.

Facts cited and sources:
Number of students taking 2013 APUSH exam: 366,641
Number of HS graduates 2013: 3,408,600

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