Friday, January 15, 2010

Debating the Past?

To continue the previous post:

As per this report, it is disheartening to discover that the people setting the curriculum for K-12 history books are more concerned about the political affiliations of various historical figures than about creating standards that would contribute to students' understanding of the past. It seems that with a few exceptions, professional historians have been excluded (or have chosen not to participate) in these hearings. It is difficult to imagine a similar set of hearings about cancer prevention, say, that would not include top-ranked physicians.

I was also disappointed that one of the testifiers complained that "American exceptionalism" had been replaced by "American imperialism." The speaker had little understanding of the relationship between the two terms, or the fact that they are not necessarily exclusionary (indeed, one could argue that America is exceptional precisely because of its methods of imperialism; the United States was, after all, a post-colonial nation that developed its own complicated ways of balancing between a democratic republic and an expansionist occupier of other people's (and nations') land).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

God, America, and Texas Textbooks

This week the Texas State Board of Education will decide on new curriculum standards for Texas public schools, and the big debate centers on American history. The 9-person committee on social studies includes several conservative members, including Bill Ames. A quotation from the Texas Tribune article:
Ames, for instance, may have been speaking for the elected board’s majority when he tried to push through a standard on “American exceptionalism.” Depending on how it’s interpreted, exceptionalism can mean simply that the country, particularly its founders, did exceptional things. Or it can mean — in a definition endorsed by Ames in his treatise — that America is “not only unique but superior,” that its citizens are “a chosen people, divinely ordained to lead the world to betterment,” and that it is “not destined to rise and fall. Americans will escape ‘the laws of history’ which eventually cause the downfall of all great nations and empires.”

Ames failed to get such notions through the committee. “He believes we’re ordained by God to play this role. It’s like the modern version of Manifest Destiny, which gave us the conquering of the West, the slaughtering of the Indians and all that,” said Julio Noboa, a University of El Paso history professor who served alongside him on the history standards committee. “He wanted a nice whitewashed view of American history, with no pimples. We said no. Students need to understand there are problems within the capitalist system … Politicians aren’t going to give our rights to us on a silver platter. Democracy is evolutionary.”

The committee didn’t necessarily object to any mention of exceptionalism as theory — it was first coined by French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville in the mid-1800s — but members recoiled at Ames’ casting of it as unassailable doctrine. “Our take on that was that you can’t force your beliefs on students in a history book; It has to take a non-biased view,” said committee member Margaret Telford, a 34-year educator who currently teaches in the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District.

The question of American superiority likely will come up again at next week’s SBOE meetings, Lowe said. “The state board members had given them (committee members) clear direction in the spring that we wanted that concept included, so it’s surprising they voted it down,” she said. “We don’t have to tell students what to think, but any educated person should have learned about American exceptionalism.”

Asked if she supports the same definition Ames had offered, Lowe said: “I don’t believe America is the chosen nation the same way (I believe) Israel is the chosen nation. I do believe we have a special and unique place in history. We are not one of many.”

“We’re Texans,” she continued. “We believe our state is better than all other states, too. Why wouldn’t we believe the same about our country?”
I teach graduates of Texas public schools, and believe you me, they already think that the United States is pretty exceptional.

If I had one wish to inject into the social studies curriculum it would be the concept of historiography - that what counts as a part of the historical narrative changes over time. It's a bit meta, sure, for third graders, but I think that it could be introduced in middle school history classes, and that it should absolutely be a part of high school history. In relation to the American exceptionalism question presented here, for example, why not teach about de Toqueville; Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis; the Progressive Era's Charles and Mary Beard who argued that the US's founding was based on the founding fathers' economic greed; Perry Miller's homage to Puritans and American destiny; Bernard Bailyn's Cold-War-era focus on ideology, and the ties between British Radical Whigs and the American revolutionaries; and the recent surge in America and the World, like Thomas Bender's A Nation Among Nations?

Then, the question moves from "Is America exceptional? Is America superior to other countries?" to "How has the idea of American exceptionalism changed over time?"

If history classes are meant to teach children about the events of the past, why shouldn't history classes also teach about how interpretations of those events have their own history?