It needs no long introduction: last fall, Julie Williams proposed the following for Jeffco Schools’ curriculum, specifically with respect to Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH):
“Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”
Student walkouts followed, public outrage came right alongside, the chaos made international news, and Williams’ supporters still think it was all orchestrated by JCEA because Ken Witt called the students “pawns” and couldn’t imagine that students would actually react with outrage if they weren’t coached into it. Now, the College Board, the creators of AP courses, have made some clarifications that Williams’ supporters are hailing as vindication for her.
Don’t be fooled by the spin!
Let’s analyze. Of course, after hearing of Williams’ proposal, nearly everyone (including students!) immediately realized that the history of this country is impossible to tell without referencing civil disorder and social strife repeatedly. It is also evident that any thorough history of the United States brings forth many positive moments that we can all be proud of, and there needn’t be a big effort to artificially push more such moments onto our youth who need to understand all aspects of our history without a political agenda.
Only in her later explanations of her proposal did Williams proclaim the importance to her of “American Exceptionalism,” a stance that for her and many others goes far beyond pride in America’s best moments and finest attributes to an almost mystical, unquestioning reverence of our country being imbued with a providence that no other nation has received from the Almighty. Others believe that, but it is safe to say that there are many proud patriots who don’t quite jive with that version of American Exceptionalism.
The point is, her original proposal was the source of community outrage. Later on, she mentioned her belief in American Exceptionalism.
This past week, the College Board announced that, responding to critics, it will include mention of American Exceptionalism as guidance within its framework. Superficially this might seem like “vindication” for Williams, but remember that so much in her camp seems to revolve around the superficial; if it sounds like she might be vindicated, then she must be! Here’s why the College Board’s action has no vindicating quality for Williams:
-First, remember that Williams admitted that she never read the framework, and so didn’t understand how the course was structured. She still might not. Yet the APUSH course framework (guidelines) were originally left vague in order to allow teachers more flexibility, to encourage critical thinking as opposed to the memorization of names and dates. In the framework, some lesser known people and events were highlighted and highly recommended that students learn about them. However, that didn’t mean in any way that others like the Founding Fathers should be forgotten. Instead, the College Board set forth guidelines about what should be taught and then it was up to the instructor to flesh that out.
-The College Board did not feel the need to spell out and highlight “American Exceptionalism,” as they figured that was one concept, among many others, that could be noted and explored as part of the course. Think of all the other “isms” that have grabbed hold of segments of our population, and sometimes large segments that have defined us: capitalism, socialism, imperialism, segregationism, Darwinism, fascism, Totalitarianism, feminism, Catholicism. You get the picture. All of these elements would be at least mentioned, if not explored in depth in a year-long APUSH course. The fact that most of them were left out of the intentionally vague guidelines is not a sign that they are not worth teaching; the College Board just left the specifics up to the professional teachers and expected them to hit the major themes that related to the broader guidelines.
-Williams’ motivation was likely not purely a curriculum concern for Jeffco students, but instead a parroted talking point that some of her ilk raised in Texas. The Texas legislature, for one, had begun discussing abolishing APUSH for political points. The compromise made by the College Board in their recent revision simply expressly states what they figured was obvious, in order to appease the political motivations of Texas legislators and others. Basically, they changed wording because of money: the College Board is a business, and so many kids in Texas and other states with similar electorates take the test.
-The bottom line is that APUSH has not been fundamentally altered. “American Exceptionalism” has been added to the framework, though not of the type that Julie Williams probably ascribes to. It presents it as one worldview among many held by some in the United States: it does not promote it.
So, we have the College Board making modifications, only to make some elements explicit that were already implied. The changes are small scale and don’t add anything new other than to state the obvious for met. It adds clarification, not something new. Finally, the changes have nothing to do with Williams’ original proposal to “not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife…” which is censorship indeed.
If you’re still susceptible to believing the Williams spin versus this analysis, there’s no squaring it with the fact that the College Board actually wrote a letter in support of the Jeffco students’ concerns last fall. The College Board, in issuing their new clarifications this year, haven’t retracted their support of the students, nor has their leadership changed dramatically. Their clarifications are superficial and political only, as opposed to the substantive support they gave the students.
Just imagine another political leader not reading the course framework of a high school calculus course, but still attacking it for not including appropriate instruction for future engineers…and then in her explanation specified that the times tables should be included in the course materials because no calculus student could be successful without knowing basic multiplication. Later, she claims victory when the textbook maker, to remain in business in the face of a bunch of Texan legislators who hadn’t read the framework either, put a times table reference in the pocket of the book.
That’s not vindication, other than in ideological fantasies and the resulting propaganda pieces.