AP History, Part I: Amateur Hour

There is a saying at the military academies that is applicable to the kerfuffle in the Jefferson County School District: “Amateur military analysts argue about weapons and tactics. Professional military argue about logistics.” When adapting the saying to education, we come up with, “Amateur educators argue about books and curriculum. Professional educators argue about instruction.” Don’t misunderstand; it is nice that Jefferson County students are getting a hands-on education about representative government. As a veteran of many school board meetings and elections, I know a lot about amateurs and education. But in an era when institutional stupidity can be found in ample sufficiency, the JeffCo amateur hour demonstrates levels of dumb that defy belief and would stagger Jim Carrey.

Specifically, in August, Jefferson County school board member Julie Williams and a few of her colleagues (the JeffCo 3) proposed a resolution “creating a committee to review texts and course plans, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials ‘promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights’ and don’t ‘encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.'” Exhibit A shows that curriculum and books do not teach kids. Teachers teach kids. In a previous column, I mentioned the banking concept of education. It is the idea that students are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, which is then poured back out on the test paper. It’s not just that the professionals understand this isn’t true. I’m sure that if the JeffCo 3 (I won’t talk about the whole board since just the conservative slate is making these idiotic pronouncements) were asked about their best educational memories, they would probably mention a favorite teacher. Almost everyone who experienced good education talks about a favorite teacher they made a connection with. This is a major component of good education: relationships in which both teacher and student contribute to the learning process. In this respect, the Jeffco 3 are actually helping the educational process, albeit unwittingly.

Some erudite observers have pointed out the similarity between the JeffCo 3’s goal of creating patriotic Americans through the AP history curriculum and the educational goals of famous dictators. So I will not explore that particular line of thinking. I will, however, point out that it is an immature patriot who needs a perfect country in order to love it. Fox News commentator Ben Carson thinks the AP history curriculum, through pointing out American flaws and mistakes, is capable of turning high school students from cell phone loving, prom-going teenagers into ISIS recruits. As a writer, I’d like to read a document that has that kind of power. It is seriously good writing that can do that. The truth is, I love America partly because of its flaws, not in spite of them or in ignorance of them. I suspect Ben Carson does as well. And I trust future generations to do the same. No patriot should be afraid of the unvarnished truth about the American journey towards a truly democratic society.

Another problem with the JeffCo 3’s curriculum demands is that they fail to understand that the AP history curriculum is supplemental. It is curriculum that teachers are to use in addition to the textbooks the district has already approved. If they want glossed-over, flag-waving, “slavery wasn’t so bad” history books, there are plenty to choose from. Buy them and let the AP students study the additional curriculum. Because the hidden reality here is that the AP curriculum teaches to the AP test. This test allows students to get college credit while they are in high school. The AP test is written by people who are experts in history. People who actually study history for a living. And these experts want students to exhibit a balanced, complex view of America’s story. Students who don’t do this won’t get college credit. If the JeffCo 3 thinks that colleges only offer a left wing, hate-America-first view of history, then they shouldn’t offer AP courses in the first place. And they should encourage students to forgo college and embark on a vocational education path.

My original point was that the JeffCo 3, like many other education amateurs, thinks they are smarter than the real experts. They think they understand the education process when, in fact, even professional educators are just starting to figure it out. Notice how the JeffCo 3 do not argue about AP Physics or AP Calculus. Or even AP English, which presumably they have some real world expertise in. Each of those curriculums has critics, but the JeffCo 3 is silent on these subjects. They are afraid to look like fools in areas they know they don’t understand. But they are willing to be fools in areas they think, mistakenly, they do understand.

But the dumbest aspect of all of this, IMHO, is the narrative the JeffCo3 operates under and their lack of understanding of narrative as a teaching tool. Over the next few weeks, I’ll continue to demonstrate the weak nature of the JeffCo 3’s narrative and then explain how effective teachers use narrative, not curriculum, to teach history. In my case, you’ll see an effective structure for good history narratives.

The JeffCo narrative is that America is a unique ”shining city on a hill” given by God to his followers as a beacon to the ignorant, the unwashed, and the unsaved. It is a place to escape the worn out ideas of Europe. None of America’s mistakes have been very bad and everyone should be proud to be an American citizen. Unfortunately, the lazy and the wicked are trying to corrupt Americans and turn them away from the one true God from whom all blessings flow and turn America into a secular, socialist nation.

This narrative is full of good feelings but short on facts. It is a story that many believe even when confronted with contrary evidence. But from my perspective, it is weak and uninspiring. By acknowledging our flaws, we can celebrate our progress. The story of that progress—from a land where only white educated landowning men could vote and hold office, to a country with a mixed race president—is not only more interesting, but more inspiring and more suited to the American ideal of being judged on merit rather than circumstance. This is the story we should pass on to future generations.

AP History, Part II: Teaching a Real Historical Narrative→