A couple of years ago I had a parent contact me about the textbook I was using to teach my AP American History course. I had just switched from The American Pageant to Eric Foner’s new book, Give Me Liberty! The parent was concerned about the political bias of Foner as well as the overall narrative that his child would learn over the course of the year. I am a huge fan of parents who take an interest in their child’s education so I agreed to meet with him at his earliest convenience. We never met in person to discuss his concerns, but we did exchange a number of emails. The first thing I did was ask the parent to give me an idea of what exactly he found troubling. Shortly thereafter I received a response that focused on the amount of coverage on issues of race. I read the response carefully, but had difficulty pinpointing the exact problem so I followed up by asking for specific references. His response was interesting. The parent pointed to two sections, one on Reconstruction and the other on Jim Crow, which he believed constituted too much attention. In addition, he also made it a point to remind me that he was not asking me to swap Foner for a book by Rush Limbaugh. This last comment took me for a bit of a loop. It concerned me that Rush Limbaugh would actually be considered as an alternative to Foner or for that matter any trained historian. I thought about how to respond to this last comment as I did not want to offend the person, but I finally decided to assert myself since I was hired to teach the course and my school gives me complete freedom to choose appropriate texts for my students. I said that it was good to hear that he was not making such a suggestion since Rush Limbaugh is not a historian and Eric Foner is one of the most respected scholars in the field.
In addition I asked if the parent’s concern about Foner’s coverage of race extended beyond the number of pages. In other words, was there a problem with the interpretation itself. I went on to offer an explanation as to why I chose this particular book. In fact, one of the reasons I chose this particular text was the amount of coverage of racial issues, which I explained was important to understanding crucial aspects of American history, including the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and countless other subjects. As a historian, however, I understand that thoughtful people can and should disagree about the way in which information is presented and interpreted. Unfortunately, our conversation never addressed these issues. I should point out that this parent is well educated and a very successful lawyer. We eventually met a few weeks later during a parent-teacher night. We chatted for a bit, but the topic never came up. I encouraged the parent to contact me at any point regarding concerns about the textbook or any other materials covered in the course. That never happened and his son went on to score a 5 on the AP Test.
I have no idea what prompted the initial email from this parent. If I had to guess I would explain it as evidence of the so-called “Culture Wars” and an overly-politicized process of history curriculum development. Much of the public discussion is mired in political talk of conservative v. liberal and questions about whether to teach a narrative of American Exceptionalism v. American Treachery. Neither debate is of any interest to me in the classroom. My guess is that this parent picked up this narrative at some point and decided to find it in the book I am using. I have no doubt that in a 1,000 page book you can find an argument to support just about any position in this ongoing public discussion. However, it is interesting that once the discussion was taken out of the realm of politics and steered in the direction of historical interpretation my parent apparently jumped ship. Perhaps he was too busy, but I tend to think that this individual was simply ill-equipped to engage in such a discussion concerning the historiography of Reconstruction and Jim Crow America not to mention the kinds of issues that serious history teachers think about when it comes to presenting this material in their classrooms.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that I feel sorry for my fellow history teachers in Texas in the wake of what will likely be changes to the state’s history curriculum. I am troubled not because the committee took a conservative turn, but by the process itself. We ought to have the same reaction if the tables had been turned and the Democrats held a majority. Listening to committee members discuss their concerns and what they believe constitutes a correction to the current curriculum is disturbing not because of who and what they want to include or delete, but for the almost complete lack of serious thought about what it means to engage in serious historical thinking. No one is talking about how to teach critical thought about our collective past; rather, it’s simply a matter of what kind of sponge you want to come out of the system in the end.
Based on what I’ve seen and read so far I can’t help but think that we are dealing with a board whose members are about as qualified to intelligently discuss these issues as the parent that I tried to engage a few years ago. Yes, no one is at a loss for explaining how they view the sweep of American history (i.e. divinely inspired, fallen, cursed, blah, blah, blah.) but no one on this board seems to have any training as a historian or even as a history teacher. That’s a failure of the system itself and hopefully it can be corrected in the near future. Georgia recently revised its history curriculum guidelines and had no difficulty whatsoever in bringing in a range of experts to discuss these issues and consider their observations and recommendations.
I engage in healthy debate on a regular basis about the materials I use in class and about how go about teaching my subject. I am constantly revising how I practice my craft. My community of peers includes historians and fellow teachers and not the local butcher, electrician, priest, rabbi, and dentist. Here’s a thought: How about forming committees of historians and history teachers to make these decisions?