The most challenging, rewarding, and invigorating educational experience of my life was the AP United States History class I took during my junior year of high school. The class was grueling, to be sure – we met daily and were assigned an impressive amount of homework. But we were blessed to have as our teacher a man named Mr. Nickel, who was so passionate and energetic about teaching that he could’ve been the subject of an inspirational education movie like Stand And Deliverwere it not for the fact that his students were mostly college-bound upper-middle-class kids who wanted to learn the material anyway.
Mr. Nickel often reminded us that American history is really all about peoples’ stories, and that hooked me early on. Day by day for an entire year, in 80 minute increments, Mr. Nickel told us an epic story spanning more than two centuries, featuring a cast of millions, political intrigue, war, geopolitics, and complex characters whose actions continue to shape the course of an entire goddamn country. America is the biggest, grittiest prestige cable drama of all time.
The class was far more difficult than anything I’d taken before or any class I would take at the University of Oregon after. I refer back to things I learned in that class on a daily basis. If you asked me to list valuable educational experiences in my life, AP US History tops the list, closely followed by the discovery that every fancy hotel has a clean bathroom in the lobby that pretty much anybody can use if you walk in like you own the place. That should say a lot about how influential Mr. Nickel’s class was, because I take advantage of hotel lobby bathrooms a lot.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma’s House of Representatives doesn’t feel as warm and fuzzy about AP US History as I do. Recently one of their legislative committees voted to advance a bill that would cut funding for the new AP US History curriculum, which sponsor Dan Fisher claims emphasizes, “what is bad about America” instead of teaching students about “American exceptionalism.”
It stands to reason that Oklahoma doesn’t like American history curriculum. It’s hard enough to get people psyched about living in Oklahoma already; telling residents that, A) there was something called the Trail of Tears, and that B) it led to Oklahoma probably won’t make the job any easier.* Any student of American history knows that President Andrew Jackson had more than a passing distaste for Native Americans – the fact that he decided to give them what is now Oklahoma speaks volumes for just how historically unimportant that area is.
*The trail that led to Oregon, on the other hand, got its own video game. Advantage, Oregon.
Under national scrutiny, Fisher meekly withdrew his bill. But debates about supposedly un-American American history curriculum are raging all over, from Colorado to Texas to Georgia. Conservative school board members everywhere seem very concerned that students will wind up hating America if they learn its actual history, so instead they’re seeking to replace it with their preferred narrative, wherein Ronald Reagan created this exceptional country out of a lump of free enterprise and then spent 200 years defending it with an AR-15 that shoots tax cuts.
I couldn’t believe less in American exceptionalism – the notion that America is the world’s only superpower because we’re somehow more special than everybody else on Earth. Teenagers already think that about themselves; I’d just as soon we don’t start teaching them that the same applies to the country they live in.
What really makes America exceptional is that we’ve got lots of natural resources and have ports on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, which makes it really easy to sell those natural resources to the rest of the world and amass huge amounts of wealth. I think it’s important for students to learn that much. It gives a context for why so many of our forebears were willing to kill, brutalize, displace, lie, cheat, and steal in this country’s name – in one way or another they recognized this country’s potential and they would do anything to defend their place in it. It’s not like that makes Manifest Destiny okay or anything, but it helps you understand what has historically motivated powerful Americans to be such huge pieces of shit.
We’re not special. Our ancestors just happened to land on a really sweet continent and then spent the next hundred or so years killing the people who were already living there, as well as anybody else in the neighborhood who started to make a fuss. Since we kicked Mexico’s assin 1848, all of our enemies have been on the other side of huge oceans, which gave America breathing room to get rich and build the most powerful military in history.
You ever play Risk with somebody who starts in Australia and spends the entire game fortifying his little island with a massive army while everybody else fights it out? It might make you a dick on family game night, but it’s been a winning strategy for America for nearly 240 years.
Nobody on the ideological spectrum is debating that America is the most powerful country in the world – the disagreement just over how much we want to tell our students about the terrible and inhumane things we had to do to get this powerful. Dan Fisher and his ilk seem to believe that AP US History, as it’s currently taught, is encouraging students to hate America. Like many Republican state legislators in the Midwest, they’re wrong and have no idea what they’re talking about.
I’m pretty well versed in this country’s nasty history and none of that has stopped me from loving it. Part of that is because it’s my home, and part of that is because US history, when taught accurately, is littered with inspiring and patriotic moments where the country briefly puts dysfunction and scandal on hold to do one or two really great things. You really can’t appreciate this country’s high points until you see the low points that we had to climb up from.
When you take the bad out of American history, you’re not just misrepresenting the facts; you’re taking a fascinating story and removing all of the dramatic conflict. That makes the story boring - and good luck getting a classroom full of teenagers to actively engage with a boring story.