There are folks out there in America who object to the term bellicose when describing Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. The Texas State School Board a few years ago objected to the term “capitalism,” deeming it too loaded with negative meaning. Okay, play with terminology, putty up and pretty up the image of the past on state standards and guides, because it really makes no difference in the classroom.
Recently the College Board acquiesced to political pressure on AP US History curriculum objectives. I can understand the thinking behind this move by those who design and correct the yearly three hour exam. Those designers simply don’t need the controversy, nor do they need states to eliminate AP US from American classrooms. But the compromise actually actuates few modifications in day to day lessons, speedily delivered by harried AP teachers. Reality dictates the content of the course, and limited by time and the massive content, most are lucky to reach bellicose Ronald Reagan before the annual May exam.
The painting above depicts General Washington’s Farewell to his Officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York. The work was the creation of artist Alonzo Chappel, and commemorates a party hosted by the victorious, but solemn Washington. This same picture, over a century later, was viewed by teetotalers with dismay. Prohibitionists, concerned by the tavern setting, especially with the wine carafe and goblet resting the table simply scrubbed the image out. Easy enough. Adjust the past to fit today’s present.
Yet, resurfacing the past, doesn’t actually change anything. Alcohol played a huge role in Colonial America. It just did. In fact, with reference to the 1980’s, all an instructor has to do is produce a couple of line graphs of military spending from 1981 to 1989. Any kid can deduce the trend in military expenditures. Read a couple of speeches in class–Ike’s Farewell Address to the country for example, and students certainly understand the deafness of the Reagan Administration to General Eisenhower’s cautionary words on the perils of the military-industrial complex.
And all those critics who scorn the notion of teaching higher level thinking haven’t spent a moment working with high school students. You can’t fool these young people, they are a lot smarter than you think. Any examination at primary materials, aside from textbooks, or any other ancillary stuff reveals a truth sans any political spin.
So go ahead and bleach the course objectives. Go ahead and whitewash topics such as the genocide of Native peoples, or the insider manipulation that has torpedoed the stock market over and over. It doesn’t matter really. I always told my students that the greatest thing about American History is that we examine it, warts and all, with eyes bravely open. That’s is the source and the strength of our nation’s greatness.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January