Friday, August 14, 2015

Battling the Educrats for History

The College Board owns and publishes both the “framework” for the nation’s Advanced Placement U.S. History course and its exam to receive college credit after mastery is demonstrated by high school students. The Board has been busy “revising” its initial “standards” and curriculum after a prairie fire of criticism was lit by the flame of facts from teachers of American history. The revelation of the deliberate extraction of American Exceptionalism from our nation’s history as taught in public school and funded by our tax dollars caused controversy and should be further exposed.

An entity previously known for its dedication to high standards in educational curriculum and testing, the College Board not only owns the Advanced Placement for U.S. History (APUSH) tests but also the SAT exams, which are used by millions to measure “scholastic aptitude” as a readiness for moving to higher education. However, the College Board has been proven to be just another institution complicit in rewriting America’s history, and that impacts more than college credit. These institutions of the Left coexist and coordinate to poison the minds of our students against their own nation’s incredible founding to become committed citizens of a global and social collectivism.

Interestingly, the content of both the APUSH and the SAT exams is written by a separate “nonprofit” from Princeton, the Educational Testing Service. The more educrats, the better, right?

First released in October 2012, the initial rendition of the revised curriculum and testing of APUSH was set to begin in 2016. As information about the drastic changes were exposed, however, the College Board was not so much moved by public comment or parental concern but by the existential threat arising from legislative aims to cease funding without revisions — read: corrections.

A recent Newsweek article was meant to assure all concerned that no malevolent intent existed. But this little statement sums up the “impetus” of APUSH’s erasure of any reference to the greatness of America and its heroes: The educrats sought to “redirect the course away from rote memorization of facts and toward historical thinking skills.”

Translation: Who needs the facts of history to frame the portrait of a nation’s greatness? The unwashed masses must be taught to synthesize their own thinking about centuries of the American experience based on their own local relations and opinions at the ripe age of 16-17 years of age, so Academia seems to support.

Larry Krieger, a retired history teacher who now tutors and writes preparatory books for APUSH testing, saw through the new focus on cultural and racial divisions that have been scattered across our nation’s history. He quickly uncovered the previous APUSH lesson structure that honored an American identity etched in fierce independence of those seeking religious liberty, then governmental restraint that moved into the pioneer movement of Manifest Destiny was abandoned. Krieger, along with countless others got busy in exposing yet another act of destruction toward America.

Whether it was the lesson that many Founding Fathers were “bigots” with their power “built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority” or the praise of mixed racial unions found in the Spanish colonies contrasted to the “rigid racial hierarchy” found among the Puritans who settled in the New England settlements of the English colonies, the noticeable absence of contrasting forms of governance of more democratic pursuits versus the Spanish authoritarianism had been discarded as so “yesterday.”

A letter signed by more than 120 scholars and released on June 2, 2015, ripped into the College Board’s adoption of social activism over scholarly academics: “The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that self-consciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective.”

States like Tennessee, Georgia, Oklahoma, North and South Carolina, Colorado and Texas either passed resolutions or made public statements from their state capitols that will end funding of APUSH in their public schools without the removal of overtly anti-American and highly socialized content.

The College Board and its defenders of the second edition of its revisions of history attest to the 142-page “framework” as providing “key concepts” and not a “list of groups, individuals, dates or historical details” — formerly known collectively as history. Instead, these supernovas of the educational elite offer “thematic learning objectives” that do “not promote any particular political position or interpretation of history.”

In an almost mocking attempt to placate critics, APUSH now includes an addition of “American and National Identity” that employs the phrase “American Exceptionalism.” Perhaps it’s a small victory that such a nod was given at all, but it’s not enough.

John Winthrop declared to the passengers traveling aboard the Arbella that left England for the New World in 1630, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Winthrop, soon afterward elected as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is renowned for this speech that has echoed throughout history, but he is still absent from the revised APUSH “framework.”

We must mount up as guardians of our American Exceptionalism and contact our state legislative leaders demanding the defunding of the College Board’s testing. This display of arrogance and a direct assault on America should be a call to action for all who are keepers of our American story. The treasure of the truth of America’s courageous founding led by men and women of shared sacrifice who were called and committed to the ideal of America should increase in value as time passes, not be treated like some dime-store trinket.


History, American Democracy, and the AP Test Controversy

Historical study and history education in the United States today are in a bad way, and the causes are linked. In both cases, we have lost our way by forgetting that the study of the past makes the most sense when it is connected to a larger, public purpose, and is thereby woven into the warp and woof of our common life. The chief purpose of a high school education in American history is not the development of critical thinking and analytic skills, although the acquisition of such skills is vitally important; nor is it the mastery of facts, although a solid grasp of the factual basis of American history is surely essential; nor is it the acquisition of a genuine historical consciousness, although that certainly would be nice to have too, particularly under the present circumstances, in which historical memory seems to run at about 15 minutes, especially with the young.

No, the chief purpose of a high school education in American history is as a rite of civic membership, an act of inculcation and formation, a way in which the young are introduced to the fullness of their political and cultural inheritance as Americans, enabling them to become literate and conversant in its many features, and to appropriate fully all that it has to offer them, both its privileges and its burdens. To make its stories theirs, and thereby let them come into possession of the common treasure of its cultural life. In that sense, the study of history is different from any other academic subject. It is not merely a body of knowledge. It also ushers the individual person into membership in a common world, and situates them in space and time.

This is especially true in a democracy. The American Founders, and perhaps most notably Thomas Jefferson, well understood that no popular government could flourish for long without an educated citizenry—one that understood the special virtues of republican self-government, and the civic and moral duty of citizens to uphold and guard it. As the historian Donald Kagan has put it, “Democracy requires a patriotic education.” It does so for two reasons: first, because its success depends upon the active participation of its citizens in their own governance; and second, because without such an education, there would be no way to persuade free individuals of the need to make sacrifices for the sake of the greater good. We now seem to think we can dispense with such an education, and in fact are likely to disparage it reflexively, labelling it a form of propaganda or jingoism. But Kagan begs to differ with that assessment. “The encouragement of patriotism,” he laments, “is no longer a part of our public educational system, and the cost of that omission has made itself felt” in a way that “would have alarmed and dismayed the founders of our country.”

Why has this happened? Some part of the responsibility lies within the field of history itself. A century ago, professional historians still imagined that their discipline could be a science, able to explain the doings of nations and peoples with the dispassionate precision of a natural science. But that confidence is long gone. Like so many of the disciplines making up the humanities, history has for some time now been experiencing a slow dissolution, a decline that now may be approaching a critical juncture. Students of academic life express this decline quantitatively, citing shrinking enrollments in history courses, the disappearance of required history courses in university curricula, and the loss of full-time faculty positions in history-related areas. But it goes much deeper than that. One senses a loss of self-confidence, a fear that the study of the past may no longer be something valuable or important, a suspicion that history lacks the capacity to be a coherent and truth-seeking enterprise. Instead, it is likely to be seen as a relativistic funhouse, in which all narratives are arbitrary and all interpretations are equally valid. Or perhaps history is useless because the road we have traveled to date offers us only a parade of negative examples of oppression, error, and obsolescence—an endless tableau of Confederate flags, so to speak—proof positive that the past has no heroes worthy of our admiration, and no lessons applicable to our unprecedented age.

This loss of faith in the central importance of history pervades all of American society. Gone are the days when widely shared understandings of the past provided a sense of civilizational unity and forward propulsion. Instead, argues historian Daniel T. Rodgers, we live in a querulous “age of fracture,” in which all narratives are contested, in which the various disciplines no longer take a broad view of the human condition, rarely speak to one another, and have abandoned the search for common ground in favor of focusing on the concerns and perspectives of ever more minute subdisciplines, ever smaller groups, ever more finely tuned and exclusive categories of experience. This is not just a feature of academic life, but seems to be an emerging feature of American life more broadly. The broad and embracing commonalities of old are no more, undermined and fragmented into a thousand subcultural pieces.

* * *

This condition has profound implications for the academy and for our society. The loss of history, not only as a body of knowledge but as a distinctive way of thinking about the world, will have—is already having—dire effects on the quality of our civic life. It would be ironic if the great advances in professional historical writing over the past century or so—advances that have, through the exploitation of fresh data and new techniques of analysis, opened to us a more expansive but also more minute understanding of countless formerly hidden aspects of the past—were to come at the expense of a more general audience for history, and for its valuable effects upon our public life. It would be ironic, but it appears to be true.

As historian Thomas Bender laments in a recent article, gloomily entitled “How Historians Lost Their Public,” the growth of knowledge in ever more numerous and tightly focused subspecialties of history has resulted in the displacement of the old-fashioned survey course in colleges and universities, with its expansive scale, synthesizing panache, and virtuoso pedagogues. Bender is loath to give up any of the advances made by the profession’s ever more intensive form of historical cultivation, but he concedes that something has gone wrong: historians have lost the ability to speak to, and to command the attention of, a larger audience, even a well-educated one, that is seeking more general meanings in the study of the past. They have indeed lost their public. They have had to cede much of their field to journalists, who know how to write much more accessibly and are willing to explore themes—journalist Tom Brokaw’s celebration of “the greatest generation,” for example—that strike a chord with the public, but which professional historians have been trained to disdain as ethnocentric, triumphalist, or uncritically celebratory. Professional historians complain that such material lacks nuance, rigor, and is prone to re-package the past in terms that readers will find pleasing to their preconceptions. They may be right. But such works are at least being read by a public that is still hungry for history. The loss of a public for history may be due to the loss of a history for the public.

Instead, it seems that professional historiography is produced mainly for the consumption of other professional historians. Indeed, the very proposition that professional historiography should concern itself in fundamental ways with civic needs is one that most of the profession would find suspect, and a great many would find downright unacceptable—a transgression against free and untrammeled scholarly inquiry. Such resistance is understandable, since conscientious historians need to be constantly wary of the threat to their scholarly integrity posed by intrusive officials and unfriendly political agendas.

There can be no doubt that the professionalization of the field has brought a remarkable degree of protection for disciplinary rigor and intellectual freedom in the framing and pursuit of historical questions. But must abandonment of a sense of civic responsibility come in tandem with the professionalization of the field? This presents a problem, not only for the public, but for the study of history itself, if it can no longer generate a plausible organizing principle from its own resources.

* * *

Consider in this regard our startling incapacity to design and construct public monuments and memorials. Such edifices are the classic places where history and public life intersect, and they are by their very nature meant to be rallying points for the public consciousness, for affirmation of the body politic, past, present, and future, in the act of recollection and commemoration, and recommitment to the future. There is a profundity, approaching the sacramental, in the atmosphere created by such places, as they draw together generations of the living, the dead, and those yet unborn in a bond of mutuality and solidarity. The great structures and statuary that populate the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument—or the solemnity of Arlington National Cemetery, do this superbly well. There is a sense, too, that cemeteries honoring fallen soldiers of the Confederacy somehow deserve our general respect, even if the cause for which they fell does not. But these structures were a product of an earlier time, when the national consensus was stronger. Today, as illustrated by the endless deadlock over the design and erection of a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington, a drama that has become a fiasco, we seem to find the construction of monuments almost impossibly difficult. And in a different but not unrelated way, the sudden passion to cleanse the American landscape of any and all allusions to the Confederacy or slaveholding—a paroxysm more reminiscent of Robespierre than of Lincoln—also suggests the emergence of a public that is losing meaningful contact with its own history.

Why has this happened? In the case of the Eisenhower memorial, it happened because the work of designing the memorial was turned over to a fashionable celebrity architect who proved incapable of subordinating his monumental ego to the task of memorializing a great American hero. But more generally, it has happened because the whole proposition of revering and memorializing past events and persons has been called into question by our prevailing intellectual ethos, which cares little for the authority of the past and frowns on anything that smacks of hero worship or piety toward our forebears. The past is always required to plead its case before the bar of the present, where it generally loses. That ethos is epitomized in the burgeoning academic study of “memory,” a term that refers in this context to something vaguely suspect.

“Memory” designates the sense of history that we all share, which is why monuments and other instruments of national commemoration are especially important in serving as expressions and embodiments of it. But the systematic problematizing of memory—the insistence on subjecting it to endless rounds of interrogation and suspicion, aiming precisely at the destabilization of public meanings—is likely to produce impassable obstacles to the effective public commemoration of the past. Historians have always engaged in the correcting of popular misrenderings of the past, and that is a very important and useful aspect of their job. But “memory studies” tends to carry the debunking ethos much further, consistently approaching collective memory as nothing more than a willful construction of would-be reality rather than any kind of accurate reflection of it. Scholars in the field examine memory with a jaundiced and highly political eye, viewing nearly all claims for tradition or for a worthy past as flimsy artifice designed to serve the interests of dominant classes and individuals, and otherwise tending to reflect the class, gender, and power relations in which those individuals are embedded. Memory, argues historian John Gillis, has “no existence beyond our politics, our social relations, and our histories.” “We have no alternative,” he adds, “but to construct new memories as well as new identities better suited to the complexities of a post-national era.”

The audacity of this agenda could not be clearer. It is nothing less than a drive to expel the nation-state, and completely reconstitute public consciousness around a radically different idea of the purpose of history. It substitutes a whole new set of loyalties, narratives, heroes, and notable events—perhaps directed to some post-national entity, or to a mere abstraction—for the ones inhering in civic life as it now exists. It would mean a complete rupture with the past, and with all admired things that formerly associated themselves with the idea of the nation, including the sacrifices of former generations. Ernest Renan argued that a nation was “a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future,” as part of a “clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.” That solidarity, that quest to continue a common life—all would surely be placed in jeopardy by the agenda Gillis proposes.

* * *

It is at precisely this point that the recent controversy over the new Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History framework comes into play. Not that the College Board—the private New York-based organization that administers the advanced placement exam to American high school students—openly espouses such a radical agenda. Instead, the College Board argues that its 2014 revision of the AP exam has sought to make the exam more perfectly reflect the contents of a typical collegiate introductory survey course in American history. On the surface this would seem to make sense, since the avowed purpose of AP is to provide a shortcut to college-level credit. But it is also a huge problem, since, as Thomas Bender himself has observed, the introductory survey course, once the glorious entryway to a college history department, is now its neglected and unwanted stepchild.

The Advanced Placement exam has become a fixture in American education since it was introduced in the years immediately after the Second World War, and many colleges and universities in the U.S. (and more than 20 other countries) grant credits or advanced placement based on students’ AP test scores. For many American students, the AP test has in effect taken the place of the required U.S. history survey course in colleges and universities. This makes its structure and makeup a matter of even greater importance from the standpoint of civic education, since many of these students will never take another American history course. The pervasive use of the test has had many sources, but surely its widespread adoption is testimony to the general trust that has so far been reposed in the test. The test has retained this trust by striking a sensible balance between and among different approaches to the American past. In addition, rather than issuing detailed guidelines, the College Board until very recently has made do with a brief five-page document outlining the test’s general framework for the use of teachers, and leaving to them the distribution of their teaching emphases. This was a reasonable, respectful, and workable arrangement.

In this light, the 134-page framework in the 2014 iteration of the test represents a radical change and a repudiation of that earlier approach. It represents a lurch in the direction of more centralized control, as well as an expression of a distinct agenda—an agenda that downplays comprehensive content knowledge in favor of interpretive finesse, and that seeks to deemphasize American citizenship and American world leadership in favor of a more global and transnational perspective. The new framework is organized around such opaque and abstract concepts as “identity,” “peopling,” and “human geography.” It gives only the most cursory attention to traditional subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s fundamental political institutions, notably the Constitution, and the narrative accounting of political events, such as elections, wars, and diplomacy.

Various critics have noted the political and ideological biases inherent in the 2014 framework, as well as structural innovations that will result in imbalance in the test and bias in the course. Frankly, the language of the framework is sufficiently murky that such charges might be overstated. But the same cannot be said about the changes in the treatment of American national identity. The 2010 framework treated national identity, including “views of the American national character and ideas about American exceptionalism,” as a central theme. The 2014 framework grants far more extensive attention to “how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history, with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities.” The change is very clear: the new framework represents a shift from national identity to subcultural identities. Indeed, the new framework is so populated with examples of American history as the conflict between social groups, and so inattentive to the sources of national unity and cohesion, that it is hard to see how students will gain any coherent idea of what those sources might be. This does them, and all Americans, an immense disservice. Instead of combating fracture, it embraces it.

If this framework is permitted to take hold, the new version of the test will effectively marginalize traditional ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that self-consciously seeks to decenter American history. Is this the right way to prepare young people for American citizenship? How can we call forth the acts of sacrifice that our democracy needs, not only on the battlefield but also in our daily lives—the acts of dedication to the common good that are at the heart of civilized life—without training up citizens who know about and appreciate that democracy, care about the common good, and feel themselves a part of their nation’s community of memory? How can we expect our citizens to grapple intelligently with enduring national debates—such as over the role of the U.S. Constitution, or about the reasons for the separation of powers and limited government—if they know nothing of the long trail of those particular debates, and are instead taught to translate them into the one-size-fits-all language of the global and transnational?

* * *

We often speak these days of global citizenship, and see it as a form of advanced consciousness to which our students should be made to aspire. But global citizenship is, at best, a fanciful phrase, abstract and remote, unspecific in its requirements. Actual citizenship is different, since it entails membership in the life of a particular place. It means having a home address. Education does young people no favors when it fails to equip them for that kind of membership. Nor does it do the rest of us any favors. We will not be able to uphold our democracy unless we know our great stories, our national narratives, and the admirable deeds of our great men and women. The new AP U.S. History framework fails on that count, because it does not see the civic role of education as a central one.

As in other areas, we need an approach to the past that conduces most fully to a healthy foundation for our common, civic existence—one that stoutly resists the culture of fracture rather than acceding to it. This is not a call for an uncritical, triumphalist account of the past. Such an account would not be an advance, since it would fail to give us the tools of intelligent and morally serious self-criticism. But neither does an approach that, in the name of post-national anti-triumphalism, reduces American history to the aggregate sum of a multitude of past injustices and oppressions, without bringing those offenses into their proper context—without showing them as elements in the great story of a longer American effort to live up to lofty and demanding ideals. Both of these caricatures fail to do what we have a right to expect our history to do. Nor, alas, will professional historians be much help, since their work proceeds from a different set of premises.

Historians will find their public again when the public can find its historians—historians who keep in mind that the writing of our history is to be for that public. Not for in the sense of fulfilling its expectations, flattering its prejudices, and disguising its faults. Not for in the sense of underwriting a particular political agenda. But for in the sense of being addressed to them, as one people with a common past and a common future, affirmative of what is noblest and best in them, and directed towards their fulfillment. History has been a principal victim of the age of fracture. But it can also be a powerful antidote to it.


Australia: Father denied access to Perth Modern School exam questions

Bureaucratic secrecy at work.  Feedback from parents would be too much trouble!  Just trust us

An elite Perth school does not have to hand over a chemistry test to a parent who fought for three years to see the questions his daughter answered during the senior school assessment in August 2012, the Supreme Court of Western Australia has ruled.

The ruling backs an earlier finding from the state Information Commissioner, Sven Bluemmel, that the father of the student was contemplating "parental debate" and "informal collateral disagreement" about the quality of the test at the inner-city government high school for academic high achievers, the Perth Modern School.

Such debate undermined the finality of the assessment and review process and was not in the public interest, Mr Bluemmel ruled in November last year.

The father argued that tests should be disclosed to aid "a prod-uctive feedback mechanism from parents and to improve the quality of the tests at the school". He said the quality of the questions would improve through continual feedback.

The West Australian Education Department let the man, known as H, have his daughter's test answers but not the test questions. He sought an external review of that decision and, when Mr Bluemmel sided with the department, appealed to the state's Supreme Court, which on Friday rejected his appeal.

Judge John Chaney said the father raised many arguments as to the merits of his claim for access to the test but the court could only rule on whether there was a legal flaw in Mr Bluemmel's decision. There was not.

The Education Department had argued that disclosing tests would force teachers to spend time writing new questions that met strict criteria. "This will result in many more hours devoted to developing a bank of effective questions, at the expense of other teaching duties," the department argued.

Mr Bluemmel accepted it was in the public interest for parents to make a contribution to students' learning.  "However, I do not consider that the complainant has established that there is a public interest in parents being able to debate the content of each test and the teachers' marking of each individual test," he wrote.

"In particular, I do not consider that the complainant has shown that the quality of the tests is such that parental debate, of the kind contemplated by the complainant, would significantly affect the quality of the tests or their marking and thus add to a student's education.

"Further, it is clear from the complainant's submissions that he would seek to subject exam questions to informal collateral disagreement. This would undermine the finality of the assessment and review process. I agree that this would be contrary to the public interest."

Mr Bluemmel was satisfied the school had agreed to discuss academic issues with the father and held a meeting with his wife.


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