Saturday, September 20, 2014

Say what?

There's a controversy in Jefferson County, Colorado, over efforts by the school board to alter the curriculum for the Advanced Placement US history class. Conservatives are concerned that the new curriculum from the College Board presents a negative view of the country.

I haven't seen the curriculum, so I can't say whether I think the curriculum is good or not. Personally, there are parts of my country's history of which I think reflect some of the better strains in human nature--the Marshall Plan, the treatment of Germany and Japan after World War II, and the women's suffrage movement, just to name a few. There are other episodes which, while they should be studied and understood, are hardly shining moments to look back on with satisfaction.

But the school board's goal here is pretty clearly problematic:
As currently outlined, the proposed panel in Jeffco will be charged with ensuring the course is aligned to Jeffco Public Schools’ standards, and is factual and taught without bias. But the panel is also supposed to make sure materials do not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law,” and instructional materials “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”
Is the American War of Independence a good thing, or a bad thing? Because how do you study that without noting that it involved civil disorder, social strife, and disregard of the law? What about the civil rights movement? That came about because there was social strife, has as one of its central tactics a disregard for certain laws, which in turn resulted in civil disorder, partly as a result of the folks in charge not wanting to change the laws and practices to make them fair.

I understand that history is an inherently contentious subject. There are different ways of understanding the past, and which of those interpretations you go with has a lot to do with how you understand the present. So if we look at how this school board thinks the past should be taught, what do we learn about how they view the present?
School board member Julie Williams, who sponsored the proposal, said people have misinterpreted what she’s trying to do. She said she’s not trying to eliminate the facts of U.S. history but shares the concerns conservatives nationally have outlined – that AP History casts some parts of history in a negative light, such as the bombing of Hiroshima and slavery.
With Hiroshima, I get that there's a positive case to be made: horrific though the bombing may have been, it saved the lives of many US military personnel who would have died in a conventional assault on the Japanese home islands, and it may even have, on balance, reduced the number of Japanese dead by shortening the war, and that in terms of extent of damage, the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki wasn't significantly different from the effect on other Japanese cities that had already been fire-bombed. So I would have an issue with a history curriculum that didn't raise those kinds of arguments. Though I'd also want students to discuss the negative aspects of the decision.

But slavery? "Conservatives nationally" have concerns "that AP History casts some parts of history in a negative light, such as ... slavery." Is there a positive light to be cast on slavery? Would Ms. Williams care to let us in on what that positive light is?

Lady, we fought a civil war over this, and the side built around the idea that slavery was good -- they lost.

Or at least I thought that's who lost, but there have been more and more incidents that make me wonder whether that's true.

Anyway, I think Ms. Williams has shown us which side of that war she would have been on. And I guess she would be happy to be able to invoke her proposed standards to be able to cast the civil rights movement as a bad thing.

But it's depressing. How are we supposed to have a meaningful discussion about anything if we can't even start from a common understanding that slavery was bad? How are you supposed to share a democracy with people who pine for the days when it was legal to own other people?

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