Noooobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Spanish Inquisition

Before I go off on my trademark character assassination and sarcastic diatribes regarding pending legislation in the hallowed halls of the Oklahoma legislature, I thought it might be helpful to bring the non-history teacher-types up to speed on just what the fuss is about. 

Unlike the easy accessibility of Sally Kern’s “Use Shock Therapy on Gay Teens” bill or our state guidelines for which angry white men we’ll send to the new Constitutional Convention to rewrite that sorry remnant of darker times (because our current leaders are SO much smarter than the Framers and besides what could possibly go wrong?), contention over something as specific as an AP curriculum can be a bit bewildering for those not walking daily in that world. 

What exactly IS the kerfuffle with the ‘new’ College Board Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) course and exam? 

Thinking HeadThe short version is that the College Board decided a few years ago to move away from a ‘Know Way Way Lots of Stuff and be Able to Apply that Knowledge Effectively’ model to a ‘Know Lots of Stuff and Learn to Think About it from Different Perspectives AND Apply that Knowledge Effectively’ model in APUSH. They wanted to give AP teachers and students the opportunity to ‘go deep’ and practice analytical thinking without being limited by the overarching need to memorize every fact ever. 

The shift was not without detractors; history teachers (especially those AP-types) love to argue and hand-wring and bluster about what’s truly important and what should be assessed and how and OMG I’ll have to revise a few of my lesson plans. 

I work and socialize with quite a few AP-types, most of whom are smarter and cooler than me. After a drink or seven, many would admit that if it were up to them, they’d tweak this part or refocus on that other thing or whatever. I feel the same way about pretty much every PLC data-goal or family vacation plan I’ve ever been a part of shaping. That’s the nature of anything designed for such a variety of teachers in such a wide range of circumstances - you won’t entirely please everyone

But none of the ones I’ve spoken with HATE IT. None of them find it un-American or insufficiently rigorous. Yes, some of my friends and colleagues are - for all practical purposes - godless Socialists, but others are surprisingly conservative. They teach the course, they labor over their students’ successes and failures in class and on the exams, and many travel the country training and listening to other APUSH teachers’ opinions and concerns as well. 

Even if they DID hate it, it would perfectly appropriate for them to say so, because they have what we in the education world like to call “some f*cking clue what’s going on.” They have a right to whatever opinions they choose because they have credibility. Legitimacy. They’re involved in the process and impacted by the results. They’re the ones actually doing the ‘do’. 

Texas, a few months ago, decided the new framework was insufficiently patriotic. The idea that there might be other interpretations or other points of view when it comes to Manifest Destiny, interventions in other nations, internal social or political movements, or whatever, seemed blatantly un-American to some. More flag-waving and less thinking was demanded. Or else. 

Python No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition

And to be fair, we do have a tendency when running from one extreme to embrace the opposite error. There’s no need to teach American history as a series of travesties and genocides based on hypocritical ideals just to offset a little red, white, and blue truthiness. Surely there’s a balance, yes? 

Baby America

But that’s the rub, isn’t it? It’s impossible to teach entirely neutral history. The range of facts and information is too broad to include EVERYTHING ever, and even if we could, a string of people and events completely free of narrative is both pointless and impossible to remember. Every teacher in every subject makes choices about what to cover and how to cover it, while trying to be as balanced and aware of our own biases as possible. 

It’s amusing to think there’s a genuine fear that the same kid I can’t CONVINCE to keep an agenda or that there’s value in learning to paraphrase might become unwittingly locked into a lifetime of twisted socio-political dogma based on which Jefferson quotes I selected for a quiz. 

But I digress. 

The point is that no matter what the curriculum includes, there will be MORE it does NOT. 

Frustrated TeacherHistory teachers deal with this all the time, at every level. One of the science teachers in my building REVELS in asking his kids where Geronimo is buried, or about the Pioneer Woman statue, or Reba McEntire, or that one time in 1973 the governor did that one crazy thing. They have no idea, and he accosts me a few times a week about what we’re teaching in Oklahoma History if we’re not including Geronimo & Co. 

History is the story of everything that’s ever happened anywhere ever, and why, and how it all fits together in every possible direction and combination. So, yeah – we make judgment calls. We’re usually wrong. 

How many books do you currently own and fully intend to read because you absolutely must and really want to? How often are you casually quizzed regarding a movie or TV show only to be assailed by some form of “OMG! I can’t believe you haven’t SEEN ______________!?! I thought EVERYONE-how-could-you-not-do-this-one-drop-everything-now-why-do-you-hate-America?!? 

Teacher HelpingAnd you already know how to read books and watch TV. What if you had to be helped to read or watch each one meaningfully along the way? It might take a while. Some might not get covered. Hopefully, however, you’d end up with the tools and background knowledge to eventually watch or read most anything without my still being there explaining as we go. You may even choose different books and shows to watch, or interpret them in ways other than I do. 

THAT’s what we call “hating America”. That’s what Texas, and now Oklahoma, want to protect you from. Senator Brecheen and Representative Fisher want to legislate a list of documents which must be covered above all else because they’re the MOST American documents. The BEST American documents, presumably. 

And there’s a butt-load of them.  

The problem isn’t anything ON the lists; it’s the pre-printing press focus on rote regurgitation of sacred texts, as if we’re not in this to awaken students or create informed citizens, but to indoctrinate followers. The punishments for straying – for violating the tenets of the sacred texts – are the same punishments as always. They’ll pull even more of our funding. Being a teacher in Oklahoma is like being the girlfriend of a low level mobster - you get slapped around and their answer to everything is to cut your meager allowance, then you're always in trouble for not looking prettier and happier. 

I’ll carry on about the specifics of the bills and the credibility of those involved soon. Let me leave you with just a tiny little preview of how much fun it could be:

▶ Josh Brecheen Halloween's Coming Early This Year

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This is absolutely a wonderful package of what's going on with these two anti-APUSH bills in Oklahoma. And to illustrate your point that we can't put ALL of "history" into the singular narrative...another element to this story is that one of the individuals who started getting conservative lawmakers all riled up about this anti-American APUSH course framework is a gentleman (I shan't name him here), who retired from teaching APUSH and went into the for profit business of writing test-prep review books for the APUSH exam. Not only has the curriculum framework changed, so has the test (reasons about historic analysis so wonderfully articulated above). Well, now this gentleman must rewrite all of his test-prep questions to match the new style students will see on the exam or no student will buy his book. I have a close friend who teaches APUSH and serves as a consultant for the College Board in training AP teachers who was approached by a different test-prep book company to help write new style questions for their book; I understand the significant difference between these old and new questions and understood her difficult task...but she did it 1) to help lots of students including her get better at this test and subject matter and 2) to help feed her family. But rather than suck it up and go about the task of rewriting his book, our other friend preferred to make outlandish claims about "leaving IMPORTANT stuff out" and "uber LIBERAL agenda" because he knew some of those members of state legislatures that pride themselves on having painted their chambers deep crimson red would hear his cries and come to his aide. I'm one of those conservative teacher peeps of whom you referred above...and I could clearly see through this mess of bull!

Keep doing what you do!

Mr. Burton, I am shocked - SHOCKED I SAY! - that you would suggest our state legislators would allow the fiscal druthers of their contributors to influence legislation. If that were the case, they belong on the national stage - not limited by their humble surroundings at OKC.

I am familiar with the APUSH prep book to which you refer. Your colleague's revised version is superior to anything similar I've ever used - and I had the privilege to see some of the 'original' text. The quality was comparable to whoever writes Sen. Brecheen's re-election ads.

I dawns on me that while reading this article - I need to get my head out of the deep depths of phd school and pay attention to "that time of year."

Contrary to popular belief, I am a history teacher! That's right - my degree is History Education. It also seems to me that some of the above stated items are quite correct: history encompasses all things at all times in all places. One thing not mentioned above, that is also super duper importante: history is often written by the winners.

I think if we were to visit some of our Native Americans and talk about history, the United States would be viewed very differently. One of the great things about history is the opportunity to learn to analyze it and learn from it. Once students are forced into a corner, do they not lose some of the analysis part?

This type of xenophobia is worrisome to me - how can we create a culture and society of respect for all people when we refuse to listen to their viewpoint??

Scott, I agree entirely. In my more evangelical days, I used to argue that if my faith was in fact true - if my God were in fact who I thought Him to be - we had little to fear from honest inquiry or exploration. While my country is more temporal, I suggest the same basic thing - we have much to learn and little to fear from trying to be honest with and about ourselves.

Isn't that the first thing we tell ppl seeking meaningful relationships? "Be yourself?" Or in recovery - be honest with yourself? And in court - the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? If Sen Brecheen and Rep Fisher are concerned our history has been overly liberalized and distorted, they should absolutely call it out - but 'truth' is approached by more light, not less, and by better questions, not more carefully limited questioning.

There are very few instances in the Scriptures that Jesus advised anyone to obscure what they were up to or to distort things in his name. "If anyone asks what you're doing, just tell them..."


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