Wheat Ridge High School students work on answering a question in a sophomore AP U.S. History class on Sept. 25, 2014.
In the last few years, Republicans from six states – with encouragement from the Republican National Committee – have attempted to crudely politicize our past by banning the teaching of Advanced Placement U.S. History, demanding that our curriculum conform to a narrow, conservative ideology that says America can do no wrong.
During my recent visits to Israel and Auschwitz, I was reminded in the starkest possible terms why we must be willing to face history with clear eyes if we are to forge a brighter future.
Sadly, it seems too many people would rather forget the lessons from events like American slavery: lessons about tolerance and pluralism, and the need to honestly face the deep historical roots of many of today’s problems.
“We simply cannot hope to build a better world if we turn our backs on our past.” Randi Weingarten
In my years as a history teacher, I knew it was my job to help students come to grips with our own history, warts and all. After all, we can only hope to live up to our founders’ call to “form a more perfect union” if we’re willing to acknowledge the mistakes of our past and move forward together with compassion and courage.
I didn’t teach my students what to think, but I made sure they were exposed to all the information and to the many different interpretations of that history. It was important that they reached their own, fully informed conclusions.
So when conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma became the latest group to try to ban AP U.S. History because they wanted to overlook the mistakes of our past, I took it personally.
American history is full of moments when we lived up to our ideals, and moments when we fell short. How could we teach the true bravery of great Americans like President Lincoln or Rosa Parks if we’re unwilling to honestly face the overwhelming horrors of slavery or the Jim Crow South? Won’t it help students learn to grapple with their own moral challenges if they learn how President Franklin Roosevelt both inspired us to come together to fight the Depression and the Nazis, and interned Japanese-Americans in detention camps? Isn’t the greatness of America not that we are without fault, but that we have consistently worked to confront and overcome injustice throughout our history?
When we paper over the dark parts of our past, we deny our students the chance to draw important lessons from those times. And in this new attack on AP U.S. History, we also deny students one pathway to a brighter future.
“How could we teach the true bravery of great Americans like President Lincoln or Rosa Parks if we’re unwilling to honestly face the overwhelming horrors of slavery or the Jim Crow South?” Randi Weingarten
AP courses allow our students to earn college credit while still in high school. At a time when rising tuition is driving the cost of higher education out of reach for many, we can ill afford to close pathways to higher education.
Further, AP courses don’t require specific lesson plans or strict adherence to a “national curriculum,” as some Republicans would have us believe. Instead, they focus on building critical thinking skills and give educators broad latitude to teach. The objection all stems from a few questions on the AP U.S. History test, questions that do require students to know parts of our history conservatives would rather forget.
At a time when we see resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe, growing fear and misunderstanding of Muslims across the West, the widest gap between rich and poor in the U.S. since just before the Great Depression, and deep divisions based on race and class in our country, we simply cannot hope to build a better world if we turn our backs on our past.
We’ve seen what happens when we allow our schools to be driven by narrow political views, or when we fail to teach our children to think critically, question authority and act in accordance with their values.
We must have the courage to face our past, so that we can strive—together—to form that “more perfect union” our Constitution charges us to fight for.