By: Nicky Barone
On February 16th, 2015, Oklahoma’s legislative committee on education passed a bill banning the teaching of Advanced Placement United States History (designed by College Board) in public schools on the grounds that it focuses too heavily on the negative aspects of the nation’s history. House Bill 1380 was introduced by Republican Daniel Fischer, who claimed that AP US History was not teaching “American Exceptionalism” and that the course is too secular in nature. In addition, the bill calls for mandatory study of certain documents such as writings by John Winthrop and……the United States Constitution. I would like to meet a single US history teacher in the history of our country’s existence that has not taught the Constitution. It should be noted that Fischer is a member of the Black Robe Regiment, a group dedicated to obliterating the divisions between church and state and infusing Christian values into government legislation. The bill passed with an 11-4 vote, split down party lines (with Democrats lambasting the bill as ludicrous and detrimental to the education of the state’s children). The bill has incited outrage across the state from both teachers and students alike, with history teacher Matt Holtzen asserting the bill “is totally going to undermine public education in Oklahoma.”
AP US History, or APUSH, was designed to provide the same level of instruction and informational breadth that students will encounter in a college-level introductory history course. It is designed to be an unbiased, rational examination of the history of our nation while imparting unto students critical skills such as primary source dissection, factual recall, connecting thematic concepts, and formulating and crafting well-written analyses of certain historical topics. The conservative lawmakers’ often virulent opposition to the course has its roots with retired high school history teacher Larry S. Krieger. Two years ago, the College Board edited and revised the content and curriculum for the exam to focus more on themes and concepts rather than straight factual recall (in particular the multiple choice section). This enraged Krieger who perceived these edits as portraying the Founding Fathers as “bigots” and that lessons only impart “a consistently negative view of American history that highlights oppressors.” Krieger began working with Jane Robbins, an opponent of Common Core, and voicing their own opposition via op-eds in newspapers and an open letter to the College Board. Critiques of the course ranged from too heavy of a focus on minorities to a claim that Ronald Reagan’s presidency was reflected upon too harshly.
As a student who took both years of AP United States History at this high school, I cannot stress enough the fallacy and insanity of such legislation. First of all, to Mr. Krieger, College Board’s entire mission statement is that its guidelines for the exam are NOT a curriculum. All individual lessons and points of focus are decided upon by the individual teacher of the course. You and the ignorant, anti-intellectual extremists in the Oklahoma state legislature clearly have a lack of understanding of how the new curriculum, or old curriculum, is actually utilized in a classroom setting. Secondly, to Representative Fischer and the Committee on Education: I was always taught that American exceptionalism was inclusive to recognizing our nation’s mistakes and having the power and integrity to acknowledge, move past, and rectify such mistakes. American exceptionalism is the individual power and ability to reflect honestly on the past, while using this knowledge and experience to craft a bright and glorious future. How is sugarcoating the past and analyzing our history through rose-colored glasses going to prevent us from repeating the mistakes we have made? Do you even understand the value and purpose of teaching history in schools at all? If this is a thinly veiled attempt to continue the stream of debilitating partisanship in our country, then please, promote an ideology that does not involve the well-being and future of children. Fischer and Oklahoma state Republicans claim they want higher standards of education for children. How could you possibly claim to want higher standards when you are advocating for such anti-academic, anti-elitist, anti-rational, jingoistic, inaccurate, revisionist legislation? For any teacher, student, lover of learning, educational administrator, parent, or well-informed citizen, past or present, the utter ignorance and insanity of Oklahoma’s crusade against rationalism and intellectualism should enrage you.
Speaking as someone who actually took the course, I can accurately say that AP US History was one of the most beneficial, academically enriching courses I have ever taken in my entire life. It introduced perspectives of historical events that I had never considered before. If anything, the ability to recognize, analyze, and critique through an unbiased lens the mistakes and missteps of the United States’ past actually fostered greater appreciation of my country. Our republic was founded on principles of self-reflection and a desire to be ever-better, to innovate, to search for truth. A censored and propaganda-ridden history curriculum does nothing but continue strands of partisan, divisive hypocrisy and ignorance that does nothing to better students academically or properly equip them to be citizens of the United States. Mr. Licavoli and Ms. Hollman were terrific instructors who offered to me perspectives of our nation’s history from various individuals and ideologies to help me formulate my own opinions. Depriving Oklahoma students of this power and critical life skill is a travesty.
I spoke with two instructors of Advanced Placement history courses, both who I have had the pleasure of having as teachers (Ms. Julia Hollman for AP US History II and Mr. Joseph Licavoli for AP US History I). When asked to comment on the law’s effect on the future of public education, Ms. Hollman stated “I don’t think it’s going to lead to the elimination of the Advanced Placement program anywhere, including Oklahoma. However, I do think this has put the College Board in a defensive position and that the law has uncovered a dangerous trend of anti-intellectualism and ideologies that promote extreme partisanship.” When asked for further comment, Ms. Hollman, a graduate of the University of Michigan and Tufts University, stated, “The law is ridiculous because the reworking of the curriculum is much needed and I personally have been waiting for it for years. It takes a lot of pressure off teachers and students to focus on historical trivia. The reworking puts more emphasis on the full picture of history and historical thinking skills…No teacher could possibly teach history without teaching the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Any decent history teacher emphasizes these things. These legislators don’t have a real sense of what goes on in a history classroom.”
When asked to impart his feelings on the law, Mr. Licavoli simply stated “This issue is beneath me.”