History has always been contested. After all, whoever controls the past controls the future and whoever controls the present controls the past, or so George Orwell once famously put it. The latest example is the brouhaha raised by some conservatives over the College Board’s rather modest revision of the “curriculum framework” for high school Advanced Placement U.S. History. “In line with college and university U.S. history survey courses’ increased focus on early and recent American history and decreased emphasis on other areas,” explains the College Board, “the AP U.S. History course expands on the history of the Americas from 1491 to 1607 and from 1980 to the present.”
The revised framework places a greater focus on women and minorities, with thematic questions like “How have gender, class, ethnic, religious, regional, and other group identities changed in different eras?” and “How and why have moral, philosophical, and cultural values changed in what would become the United States?” At the end of the course, students are expected to do things like “Explain how conceptions of group identity and autonomy emerged out of cultural interactions between colonizing groups, Africans, and American Indians in the colonial era” and “Explain how the U.S. involvement in global conflicts in the 20th century set the stage for domestic social changes.” The test will also now have fewer multiple-choice questions and more essays, reflecting the reality that the study of the past is not simply about memorizing names, dates, battles, locations, and laws.
Not all that radical, really, but some conservatives went ballistic. The Republican National Committee called the framework a “radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” Tennessee lawmakers urged the state board of education to review the framework and materials. “There are many concerns with the new [AP U.S. history] framework, not the least of which is that it pushes a revisionist interpretation of historical facts,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham. “The items listed as required knowledge have some inclusions which are agenda-driven, while leaving out basic facts that are very important to our nation’s history.”
Last week Texas moved to require its high school AP students to learn only state-mandated curriculum — not be taught to the national test. The Board of Education approved a measure declaring that the history curriculum its members set trumps that covered by the AP history course created for classrooms nationwide. Board Member Ken Mercer, a San Antonio Republican, called for Texas to delay implementation of the new AP test in the state. But since the board has no jurisdiction over a national test, members compromised with last week’s measure. In 2013, about 47,500 Texas high school students took the AP History exam, and about 18,600 earned college credit. AP History students this year will still take the new exam, but will prepare for it by studying Texas-sanctioned curriculum.
But when this silly “movement” arrived in suburban Jefferson County, Colorado, it was the students who took matters into their own hands. A new conservative school board majority proposed a curriculum-review committee to not only respond to the allegedly “leftist” AP framework but to promote patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise and to guard against educational materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder.” In response, “hundreds of students, teachers and parents gave the board their own lesson in civil disobedience,” as the New York Times put it.
On Tuesday, hundreds of students from high schools across the Jefferson County school district, the second largest in Colorado, streamed out of school and along busy thoroughfares, waving signs and championing the value of learning about the fractious and tumultuous chapters of American history.
“It’s gotten bad,” said Griffin Guttormsson, a junior at Arvada High School who wants to become a teacher and spent the school day soliciting honks from passing cars. “The school board is insane. You can’t erase our history. It’s not patriotic. It’s stupid.” . . . .
[The students] waved signs declaring, “It’s world history, not white history,” and talked about Cesar Chavez and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leaders of the walkout urged others to stay out of the streets and not to curse, and sympathetic parents brought poster board, magic markers and bottles of water.
Students said they had organized the walkouts over the weekend via Facebook after teachers, who have additional beefs with the new right-wing-led board, staged an organized “sick-out” at two district high schools last Friday.
Leighanne Grey, a senior at Arvada High School, said that after second period, a student ran through the halls yelling, “The protest is still on!” and she and scores of her classmates got up and left.
She said that learning about history, strife and all, had given her a clearer understanding of the country.
“As we grow up, you always hear that America’s the greatest, the land of the free and the home of the brave,” she said. “For all the good things we’ve done, we’ve done some terrible things. It’s important to learn about those things, or we’re doomed to repeat the past.”
According to the Denver Post, the protests actually began on Monday when about 100-200 students left classes at Evergreen High School to present a petition at the District Administration Building. “I want honesty in my classroom,” the students said in a letter presented to Superintendent Dan McMinimee, who spoke with four student representatives and the board. “Teachers want honesty in the classroom.”
And the protests have continued. Today was the fourth consecutive day that students rallied against the board’s effort to impose political restrictions on the history curriculum. The Post reports that
Students from Columbine, Lakewood, Bear Creek and Dakota Ridge high schools all walked out of school Thursday in the largest single-day protest in a week of escalating tensions between students and the school board. Students from the majority of the county’s schools have now left school in protest, with Dakota Ridge students on Thursday becoming the first to walk out of school twice. . . .
The protests, which have been organized on Facebook by a handful of students at each school, are staggered throughout the day to increase media presence.
In addition, the students have
improved their organization, message and size, rallying a group of roughly 1,000 at a combined Columbine and Dakota Ridge high school walk-out that saw kids hanging from the railings of a pedestrian bridge. A movement that started with cardboard signs and random chants has moved to bullhorns and even a slogan: “It’s our history, don’t make it mystery.” . . . .
“People think because we are teenagers we don’t know things, but we are going home and looking things up,” said Savanna Barron, a senior at Lakewood High School, as she waved a sign on Kipling Street on Thursday morning. “If they don’t teach us civil disobedience, we will teach ourselves.”
Hear! Hear! And a huge BRAVO! to these courageous students who apparently understand the meaning of genuine education far, far better than do those who purport to run their school system. As The Who put it well decades ago, “The kids are all right!”