Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"A vivid sense of...grandeur and drama"

I taught required American history classes for high school students for thirty-five years, but never a US History AP class (some of my Pol. Sci. students did take the AP exam for that subject and did well). The most effective way to teach history to secondary students is to leaven factual information with story. The tendency over recent decades has been to de-emphasize facts and drama in favor of make-work projects (boring to the bright) and ideological abstraction (boring to everyone). And the textbooks, written by committee and made inoffensive as possible, do not engage readers. The newest version of the AP test for American history has become very controversial among teachers, parents, and serious historians. Some fifty-five scholars signed this statement:
.... "The College Board’s 2014 Advanced Placement Examination shortchanges students by imposing on them an arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history. We favor instead a robust, vivid, and content-rich account of our unfolding national drama, warts and all, a history that is alert to all the ways we have disagreed and fallen short of our ideals, while emphasizing the ways that we remain one nation with common ideals and a shared story. ....

.... The new framework scrubs away all traces of what used to be the chief glory of historical writing—vivid and compelling narrative—and reduces history to an bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces. Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals. The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that self-consciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective. ....

We believe that the study of history should expose our young students to vigorous debates about the nature of American exceptionalism, American identity, and America’s role in the world. Such debates are the warp and woof of historical understanding. We do not seek to reduce the education of our young to the inculcation of fairy tales, or of a simple, whitewashed, heroic, even hagiographical nationalist narrative. Instead, we support a course that fosters informed and reflective civic awareness, while providing a vivid sense of the grandeur and drama of its subject.

A formal education in American history serves young people best by equipping them for a life of deep and consequential membership in their own society. ....
I just read an informative review of a book, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab that does provide a "warts and all" version of a shameful part of US history. Why is Jackson still honored?