Why The Controversial New AP History Curriculum Is Patriotic

October 27th 2014

Lindsay Haskell

The new national Advanced Placement American History curriculum has sparked debate and protests in Jefferson County, Colorado. Opponents of the curriculum claim it portrays a "consistently negative view of America" calling for a review to ensure that it promotes "citizenship, patriotism ... respect for authority and respect of individual rights" and does not encourage "children to disobey the law." Students and teachers in Jefferson County, however, believe that a push to re-do the curriculum review process is tantamount to 'censorship' and has led many to organize school walkouts in protest.

What I find most interesting among critics is the call for greater "citizenship" and "patriotism" in the history curriculum. In my opinion, isn't the very core of being an active citizen and patriot about being an informed, critical thinker about the country we live in? In order to do just this, we must understand our past, both good and bad, and cultivate our own independent mindset and the appropriate skills to cast a critical eye on current events as well. The curriculum's opposition keeps stressing that we need to highlight America's "exceptionalism" and it is exactly this freedom to think and speak freely and be skeptical of our leaders and our policies that makes the U.S. exceptional. By promoting blind compliance and glossing over the negative aspects of our history, we are threatening the very foundation that makes this country great. 

Conservative neurosurgeon Ben Carson recently said that the curriculum would make many "ready to go sign up for ISIS" but this comment - meant to highlight the so-called negative viewpoints within the AP curriculum - drastically underestimates the American citizens' intelligence. To think that students in high school, in the advanced history classes no less, cannot critically discern the past from the present, cannot understand that a country's past indiscretions does not make it the enemy, is the opposite of patriotism and exceptionalism. After all, shouldn't we instill pride in ourselves for the fact that we've moved past the mistakes of the past, and also are continuing to question authority so as to ensure that will not be repeated indefinitely. Questioning authority is exactly what created the United States of American and we need these people - the "civilly disobedient" - to continue to push forward and probe the status quo.

Ironically, one of the complaints that conservatives have about the curriculum is the omission of Martin Luther King, Jr. (which the College Board points out was not in the previous curriculum either, since the guidelines serve as merely a general outline, the detailed content of which is to be determined by the individual state, school and teacher) who was known for his civil disobedience, by leading boycotts, protests and demonstrations to fight the U.S. policies on segregation. So who, exactly, is to say which civil disobedience is acceptable and which isn't? Who is to say which authorities should be respected and which shouldn't? Isn't it the job of teachers to help students decide for themselves, rather than thrusting one school board's opinion onto them? 

On a larger scale, by highlighting America's "exceptionalism" over the negative, what are the greater lessons that we are teaching the next generation? That it's okay to make mistakes and admit to them and learn from them, except if they shed you in a negative light, in which case, just spin them the way you want or only focus on the positive aspects? Of course, the triumphs of America should also be given their due respect in history classes, but so should the many injustices that the country has enacted on its citizens, since it is these events, too, which has shaped the culture of America. Not just in the political and social sphere, but also in the artistic sphere - from music to literature to film, the trials and tribulations that U.S. citizens went through, and continue to go through, have inspired masterpieces that cannot be ignored. And these citizens - the ones that suffered at the hands of our past or current government - cannot be ignored either. Because they, too, are citizens and patriots, and their stories are vital to us as a people.

In fact, I would say in the midst of continuing conflicts, it is essential for the next generation to start developing critical and analytic skills - to view the problems that litter U.S. history in different lights and to be able to expand their view of their surroundings. For after all, these high schoolers represent the future of this country and without those willing to question authority, and we will never move forward toward becoming an even more enlightened country.