Monthly Archives: February 2015

History repeats itself

We had a considerable to-do in our state this week. The Common Education Committee in the House of Representatives reported out a bill to cut off state funding of Advanced Placement U.S. History classes, and was shocked by the angry public reaction when word got out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had something to do with that. Part of my job is keeping an eye on the Oklahoma House. So I wrote a story about this bill and the committee discussion.

The claim against AP U.S. History — or rather, to the outline published by College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program — was that it is overly concerned with some of the less attractive aspects of America’s past. The author of the bill, Rep. Dan Fisher, said he wasn’t against against covering the bad stuff, but in his opinion AP was way off kilter. His two supporting witnesses were a county assessor and a former teacher from somewhere in the Northeast.

Fisher considers himself something of an expert on U.S. history. He likes to dress up like an eighteenth century parson and lecture on how the American Revolution was really a kind of holy war led by men of God. His main sources are two books written in the 1860s; anything much more recent than that, he says, is tainted by “revisionism.”

As far as I know, Fisher has never tried to include this particular view in the state’s history curriculum.

In the course of discussion on the bill, it was suggested that AP courses are a lot like Common Core in that they could be interpreted as a way of imposing national standards or curricula on the states. One representative said she had asked the state attorney general if Advanced Placement violated state law.

After the blue books hit the fan, Fisher and the others who supported the bill said they never intended to hurt AP, that they had been misunderstood, that they had not understood the implications of the bill. This last, that they didn’t quite understand what they were getting into, may be true. I’m certain they were completely surprised by the uproar, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that at least some of them had not thought beyond the risk of being labeled unAmerican.

What they got was national ridicule, from cable news to The Onion, and probably more surprising to them, a deluge of phone calls and emails from angry constituents. (A co-worker asked why Oklahomans didn’t get that angry about some of the anti-LGBT churned out by our Legislature. That’s easy, I said. No one’s kids get college credit for being gay.)

Fisher says he hasn’t given up on the bill, but will rework it before it gets a floor vote. Many observers think it’s as dead as George Washington’s cat, but in Oklahoma you never know.

And anyway, none of this is new. About fifteen years ago, I covered a story involving the state textbook committee, a heretofore obscure board that, as its name implies, approves public school textbooks. But a few Young Earth creationists had managed to get themselves appointed to the committee, and they were trying to nix the new science books for not including their particular point of view.

A similar furor erupted, lasted for a while, and subsided.

I personally don’t know how or if AP history is corrupting our youth. It’s an optional course, so if parents don’t like it they can keep their kids out of it. People I know who teach AP history say it really hasn’t changed in years, and I can believe it. I used to cover higher education, and one of the things I learned is that eduspeak is constantly inventing new ways to say the same things, only more obscurely.

Among the fears posed by the Great AP Menace is that students are not being taught the “foundational documents” of American history. My sense is that this is a little like asking why long division is not taught in calculus class. Advanced Placement, as the name implies, are advanced courses; they are, in fact, college level courses.

Foundational instruction begins much earlier. I’m not an educator, but I’d guess kids should have a pretty good idea what the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are by middle school. Probably, they’ve been exposed to such things as the Mayflower Compact and Washington’s Farewell to the Troops. One would certainly hope so.

History is not like math. There are few constants; two-plus-two does not always equal four. History is messy and changeable, open to interpretation and susceptible to all sorts of external influences. The teaching of history is further complicated by dual and often competing purposes: a common narrative to unite an increasingly diverse nation, and a warts-and-all explanation of how we arrived where we are.

It’s kind of fun, too. People have argued about history since the Greeks came back from Troy, so why stop now?

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The age-old argument

The Tulsa World had a long piece Saturday about the rift between ” young Earth” and ” old Earth” Christians. Of all the things Christians (or anybody else) argue about, this has to be one of most pointless.

The argument is whether the Earth is a few thousand years old, which is what some interpret the Bible to say, or a few billion years old, which is what virtually everyone who knows anything about natural sciences say. Really, it’s about those who believe a literal reading of the Bible — for some, the King James Bible — trumps all else, and those who don’t. My own view, through the lens of a lifetime of working with words, is that no language is free of ambiguity, and the phrase “lost in translation” is not merely a cliche.

But I digress. The real question is “What difference does it make?”

Philosophically, morally, spiritually, what difference does it make to me whether the Earth is six thousand years old or six billion? Will I behave differently if it is one or the other? The answer is no. When and how the Earth was made has no bearing on my conduct, and it’s difficult to believe it affects anyone else’s. While this sort of thing might make an interesting discussion, obsessing over it is a detour down a theological dead end. It is the equivalent of arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; more seriously, it diverts from the central message.

For some reason, we in the United States are particularly prone to pitting science against faith. This is disturbing because it encourages a mindset that puts wishful thinking ahead of objective evaluation of facts and circumstances.

My personal rule is that I never call an electrician to work on my plumbing. I call a plumber. He may turn out to be a bad plumber, an unscrupulous plumber, or a plumber who misdiagnoses the cause of my backed up sink or leaking kitchen drain, but on the whole I’m more likely to get better advice about plumbing from a plumber than I am from an electrician or a child psychologist or a priest.

So it is is with the age of the Earth. If the experts in the field say the earth is billions of years old, I’m inclined to go with that. But I am also quite aware that ideas change as more facts present themselves, and some day the consensus of science may change. That is the nature of science. It’s conclusions change to fit the facts, not the other way around.

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