The History Wars: The American Right Will Not Surrender Their Myths

As a historian, I study myth and narrative, not events or actions. I believe truth exists – in that I believe people did things and said things and even thought things and that sometimes those things are knowable. I just don’t especially find that interesting.

What interests me is how individuals and groups tell stories about themselves, their pasts, and their hopes for the future, and what these narratives and their reception reveal to us about those individuals and groups.

And now, protests and debate over AP History standards in  Colorado:

The College Board, which administers exams to students upon the completion of AP courses, has revised the history curriculum in ways that have angered conservatives, who say it paints a darker picture of the country’s heritage and undervalues concepts such as “American exceptionalism.”

This is a good article, working through the issues well. The question is what is the purpose of American history. The conservative voice, represented by a board member here, have one take:

The school board plans to set up a new committee to review the curriculum with the goal of assuring that courses — in the words of board member Julie Williams — “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” and “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.”

She’s not wrong. Ok, she’s wrong. But historically speaking, she’s right that this has often and continues to be the function of nationalist history around the world. The emphasis on unearthing silenced voices, on writing counter narratives, even on (the now discredited) mid-century focus on objective truth – these are all very modern. Throughout most of the human past and honestly still today in almost every part of the world including here, people shape their historical narratives in ways that serve their agendas, often their religious, cultural, national agendas. That’s what I study in medieval Venice. And that’s what’s going on here.

For the American Right, a certain view of US history is essential to sustain their ideology. It’s not accurate. It’s highly biased in favor of certain constituencies (also the groups that vote right-wing). Here are more voices.

On Sept. 19, the Texas State Board of Education went on record against allowing the new AP curriculum framework in state classrooms. Legislators and activists in South Carolina and Tennessee are discussing similar moves. And at its summer meeting in August, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution branding the curriculum “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”

The new framework also came up at last month’s Value Voters Summit in Washington, a conservative meeting that drew a number of possible 2016 GOP presidential contenders. Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon who is considering a White House bid, told the gathering that the new AP history framework is so anti-American that “I think most people, when they finish that course, they’d be ready to sign up for ISIS,” the Middle Eastern terrorist group also known as the Islamic State.

So that last is just nonsensical fearmongering.

This is important. As an educator, it’s upsetting to see politicians and ideologues trying to control historical discourse.

But it’s also totally normal. Myths have power.

Leave a Reply