Equity & Diversity Opinion

Oklahoma Is Not OK

By Dave Powell — February 19, 2015 5 min read
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You may have heard by now that our friends in Oklahoma, who helped catalyze the anti-Common Core movement by swearing they would replace those standards with their own standards that were even more challenging than the ones served up in Common Core, have also taken a courageous stand against a private non-profit corporation’s suggested new framework for teaching U.S. History to prevent advanced kids from getting college credit before they go to college. Here you go:

The bill, authored by Oklahoma Rep. Dan Fisher, designates a total of 58 documents that "shall form the base level of academic content for all United States History courses offered in the schools in the state." Many of the texts are uncontroversial and undoubtedly covered by the Advanced Placement U.S. History course, such as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and Gettysburg address.

Well, that’s not so bad. I mean, I want kids who study U.S. history to learn about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address too. Those are seminal documents in American history. It figures those pointy-headed academics would want to leave them out of the story. But, wait, there’s more:

Tulsa World reports that Representative Dan Fisher, who introduced the bill, lamented during Monday's hearing that the new AP U.S. History framework emphasizes "what is bad about America" and doesn't teach "American exceptionalism." It's a complaint that's been spreading among mostly conservative state legislatures in recent months and has some calling for a ban on all AP courses.

Let me make two points right off the bat. First: a framework is not a curriculum. It’s essentially an outline that provides a foundation for developing curriculum, but it’s not a curriculum. End of story there. Second: I’m not here to tear down Oklahoma. Among other things, Oklahoma is the state that gave us Woody Guthrie, and as far as I’m concerned Woody Guthrie is one of the all-time great Americans simply because he wrote this song. Okay, not just because of that song—because of everything he was, and because of everything he ever did to make people think about what it actually means to be part of a community—but that song is a great starting point (and, no, he wasn’t a Marxist—though it would not make him any less American if he had been). Build a curriculum around THAT, Oklahoma, and you’ll have my full attention.

But, of course, that’s not what Rep. Fisher is after; he doesn’t even mention Woodrow Wilson Guthrie anywhere in his “base level of academic content” document, probably because Guthrie was named after a Democrat. At the same time, this is not your run-of-the-mill conservative rewrite of American history. Sure, there’s the obligatory reference to the Ten Commandments and some additional candy for Christian conservatives in the form of famous sermons by John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards, but there’s also a lot of conditional language in there. For example, Fisher’s bill says:

Teachers may structure, organize, deliver and teach each document in a manner and order to facilitate student learning. In addition teachers may include other foundational and historical documents, readings and curriculum materials in the course instruction.

Well, okay then. So, just to summarize: Rep. Fisher is providing a framework for all teachers of “Advanced Placement” U.S. History to follow (though the courses offered won’t actually be “AP” courses, strictly speaking, since the College Board owns the copyright on that and students will not, presumably, be allowed to take a test that casts the history of America in a negative light), but teachers can teach the course however they see fit and can even add other “foundational and historical documents and curriculum materials” to their courses as well. I might recommend that those teachers consider consulting the very strong framework for teaching U.S. history published here. Or, if that doesn’t move them, maybe try here.

Seriously. Political stunts aside—though before we move on we should take a moment to reflect on why the public’s time is being wasted on ridiculousness like this—there are serious implications to Fisher’s bill. For one thing, Oklahoma is not alone: you probably heard about the shenanigans in Jefferson County, Colorado last year, and now Georgia is getting in on the act too. We’ve seen this movie before. Taking page after withered page from the same culture wars playbook, conservatives drum up some crisis of confidence in our system of education either to distract us from things that are more important or, apparently, just to give themselves something to do. Then they pass around the claim like an infectious disease, build up a certain level of outrage—and do real damage to our ability to educate kids in the process.

That damage is difficult to undo. On one level this is about how we teach about the past, and how we decide what kind of story to tell to young people about who we are. But this is also about what it means to be a professional teacher (is there another professional field so frequently subjected to the whims of provincial politicians?; all this meddling drives good people away), and it’s about what it takes to prepare kids for the world they’ll enter when they leave rural Oklahoma or suburban Denver or exurban Atlanta to find their own way in it. If their experience has been blinkered and limited to what some politician in a distant state capital thinks is worth learning, there will be a price to be paid. And that’s just speaking educationally. I teach kids all the time who say things to me like “I can’t believe nobody ever told me about Emma Goldman before” or “I don’t know how anyone can say they understand American history without learning about Emmett Till and the Birmingham church bombing.” Not hearing that side of the story makes many of them feel that they’ve been lied to, sowing the seeds of cynicism.

And that’s a critical point: the stories people like Dan Fisher and William Ligon would have removed from the U.S. history curriculum are the ones most likely to give us hope that social problems can be solved. A U.S. history class that only mentions slavery tangentially through the House Divided speech or the Atlanta Compromise speech or the Letter from a Birmingham Jail misses the point completely: we teach these things not because we want to cast America in a negative light, but because teaching them helps us understand who we are and adds much needed context to the debates that swirl around us regarding politics and social policy. I teach about both the “negative” and “positive” aspects of the American experience because I love the idea of America, not because I hate it. You don’t get better by ignoring problems; you get better by acknowledging them and fixing them.

Telling a one-sided happy story about America in school doesn’t cause students to simply accept and believe it. It causes them to go get their information somewhere else. Not talking about our history doesn’t make it go away. It makes kids feel cheated that they didn’t find out the truth sooner, and makes them more distrustful of the people who withheld the information from them once the truth finally comes out. It insults their intelligence.

This isn’t how democracy is supposed to work. In a democracy, you want to encourage the free flow of ideas, both the good ideas and the bad ones. We hear often from conservatives complaining about government overreach but, apparently, we’re expected to turn the other way when conservative members of the government decide it’s appropriate to dictate to teachers what they should teach. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a country where the government tells teachers how to teach history. That doesn’t sound like America to me.

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