The anthropologist Peter Wood wrote an article last week on the History News Network (“Why Conservatives Are Up in Arms at the College Board’s Advanced Placement Course in History”) charging the College Board with politicizing the new Advanced Placement History standards. He claims that the new standards are “a radical interpretation of American history—one in which figures such as Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison play a drastically reduced part.”
Fred Anderson, a professor of History at the University of Colorado, participated in the creation of the new standards. In a new article, he challenges Wood’s interpretation of the new standards. Instead of politicizing the course, Anderson explains, they “hoped that future AP students would emerge from the course not just with a fund of facts at their disposal, but knowing how to ask productive questions about the past, and understanding why historical arguments must be governed, always and only, by the evidence.” And concludes that “Dr. Wood’s tortured reading of the Framework and his blanket denunciation of academic historians suggests that he, too, might pause to reflect on the values of rigor, impartiality, thoroughness, and intellectual honesty that were, in the end, all we hoped to foster.”
I admit, I find the charges that historians are “out to deconstruct American claims to exceptionalism” troubling. Historians are not in the business of myth-making and most teachers would rather teach their students history not myth. The kind of black and white thinking that only admits of two choices (either we are perfect or we are malevolent) is dangerous. To indoctrinate our children in myths of perfection is to create a culture of arrogance and stagnation. We should learn from our mistakes, not ignore them. The willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them is not un-American it is what makes America great.
“Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed–and no republic can survive.” JFK Presidential Library and Museum