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ClioOver the past year, good Americans have been fighting the changes that the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History standardized tests have made and are in the process of making. Most fights have been highly localized, generally at the county level. While some of these conflicts have made national news, most have stayed isolated and reported only by local media. At the beginning of this summer, however, a group of fifty-five opponents of the changes have signed a formal and public letter protesting what the AP has done. Many of the protestors are personal friends as well as friends of The Imaginative Conservative. While I appreciate their criticisms of the standards, they, unfortunately, only propose a softer version of what is in place. Rather than a progressive agenda, they seek a progressive-lite agenda. Rather than a conservative vision of history (if such a thing exists), they seek to take the study of history not back to, say, Herodotus, but to John Dewey.

I perused the new examination guidelines and study points very quickly last summer. Here are my notes, dated August 12, 2014, after a private citizen of Colorado emailed me with questions. The topic, it should be noted, was a hot one there, with local citizen groups demanding a repeal of the standards as quickly as possible. A number of University of Colorado historians got caught in the middle of the debate. Anyway, here were my thoughts:

  • I don’t feel qualified to state anything definitively—as this is just too new for me. I can state a couple of things, though.
  • Three of the scholars involved in this are quite good. Peter Wood, Fred Anderson, and David Kennedy on the side of the AP. In fact, they’re more than good—they’re really some of the best of the best among professional historians.
  • The AP information looks exactly like what almost every college-level textbook has been teaching since the early 1980s.
  • The American founding is, unfortunately, played down—its nobility especially erased in the AP’s rendering of events.
  • And, most troubling, is the depiction of the Progressive Era and the progressives as noble.  The progressives were some of the most racially and religiously bigoted persons in our nation’s history. They were, in so many ways, rather horrible as human beings. Why the AP would seek to diminish the founding because of the supposed racism of the time but uphold the progressives as exemplars is beyond reprehensible. It is factually wrong and ethically dangerous.
  • Also troubling is how simplistic the AP presents both the left and the right in the twentieth century, even implying there are only two sides in any given conflict.
  • As with almost every standardized test or agency throughout history, the AP exam and the AP are simplistic, narrow, superficial, and, ultimately, anti-humane. They are meant to categorize, label, dismiss, and pigeon-hole, rather than leaven. They are, indeed, the purest expression of the unimaginative mind.

After making the notes, I had the good fortune of speaking with Fred Anderson and Patty Limerick at the University of Colorado. I found I was in agreement with each, at least on a personal and conversational level.

Limerick, who has been a hero of mine since 1989 or so (even when I disagreed with some of what she wrote, I loved and admired her anyway!) especially saw the best in the debate over the standards, recognizing in the magical way that only she can, that we should view the debate as a wonderful opportunity to have a real national conversation about the meaning of history and the meaning of this country.

Limerick’s optimism has not played itself out with those who are, sadly, not as charitable or imaginative as Patty Limerick. A pity, as the world would be a much better place if they resembled her more.

150221050549-ap-history-controversy-large-169But, back to the thrust of the debate. The central question and answer that the proponents and opponents (well, those 55 who signed the documents) seek to propose—in unison with only variations—is a social scientific history centered around a “progressive” American nationalism that seeks to incorporate all variations into its framework. In other words, if you’re opposed to nationalism at any level, it’s impossible to side with either the proponents or the opponents. In their rush to proclaim either the goodness or badness of America, they lose sight (almost completely) of the human person. Indeed, each side almost completely loses the ability to assume that free will works in history. Everyone—good, bad, left, right, up, down, above, below—either fits the plan or doesn’t count.

One of the most disturbing parts of the opposition letter comes from its assurance that it doesn’t not want to tell history as a series of fairy tales. Why not? History is nearly inseparable from myth and legend and fairy, properly understood. All of history is a series of stories connecting personal and unique manifestations of universal truths at any given moment in time and space.

I very much doubt if there is a “conservative” vision of history, but I would equally state that all conservatives MUST conserve history as a vital part of our existence and the well-being of humanity as a whole. There’s a moral piety in preserving the past, but there are also deeply practical reasons to know how things have been done and believed before. I can’t help but think of Russell Kirk’s understanding that every single generation has the high duty to decide if what is inherited from our mothers and fathers is 1) passed on without alteration; 2) reformed; or 3) rejected. There are no exceptions to this. And, as T.S. Eliot had stated many times, tradition is never enough. It must be tempered by wisdom and morality. Burke called this judgment of the past, prudence. Simply because mom and dad did it makes it neither right nor wrong.

But, if our history—as it seems the official proponents and opponents of the AP Standards want—becomes merely the history of our nations and its citizens, we are a lost people. What do we have to pass on to our children? Huge expansive units, governed by bureaucracies, militaries, and tax collectors.

History must be more nuanced, and, at least from a perspective of a conservative, much more humane. Every moment of every day, seven billion peoples (at least those awake) make decisions. These decisions are equal parts whim, emotion, passion, desire, charity, rational, and irrational. As individuals, we can’t even reconstruct the events of thirty seconds of our lives with any real accuracy. Why on God’s Green Earth would we assume we can reconstruct—or worse, construct—those of others?

ChiefCrazyHorseMonumentWe must be stewards of the past and the present, not architects of a rigid and dreary future. That a graduating senior knows that the Sixteenth Amendment allowed the income tax is important. That Crazy Horse defended his community is much more important. That the New Deal instituted social insurance matters, but it’s more important that we realize the Kiwanis ended poverty in any one town is more so. History should be about the choices individuals and communities make in the face of prosperity and adversity, not the choices they HAD to make because the times dictated such and such.

The highest form of history is not the nation-state, a malignant creature that has existed for roughly 500 years in our history, but the individual human person and the communities formed that matter in terms of leavening, not just conforming.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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7 replies to this post
  1. The Founding Fathers were as anti-Catholic as one can be, if you don’t believe me learn about their thoughts on the Quebec Act. I’d just thought id remind you.

  2. “All of history is a series of stories connecting personal and unique manifestations of universal truths at any given moment in time and space.”

    Absolutely. Which is why those who persist in assigning history to the category of “social sciences,” instead of recognizing it as a branch of the humanities, are sadly misguided.

  3. The American founding was an illegal and unnecessary revolt against a government that was not by any stretch of the imagination particularly oppressive. Two of the “founders” main fears were that their slaves would be taken away, and they would not continue to be able to expand into the west, breaking treaties with Indians. To be conservative surely ought to mean rejecting violent revolutions against mildly annoying governments.

  4. Hear, hear Prof. Birzer– The reason that many connect with the Howard Zinn-type histories is because they do examine at the micro level, valuing the common struggles of ordinary people in their day. Of course historians of all stripes do tend to look “top-down” at their past, placing themselves into the imperial shoes and finding the “winners” in the Trump style, e.g. in might-makes-right.

    Can true conservatives step forward, and draw some versions of the common man that involves the joy of traditional community efforts, going beyond his hard toils in factories at the hands of greedy bosses and death at war in trenches fighting for nothing of importance, alone? And P.S…. if Jefferson was an ogre for making babies with his slave women, what was Lincoln for prosecuting a war leaving 600,000 dead plus half a country in ruins in order to keep a political construct in one piece and void a case of self-determination? Surely the slaves themselves were horrified.

  5. It is a sad truism the Winners Write The History Books, and the Losers’ versions are suppressed. In a time of flux, when it is uncertain who will come out on top, one finds partisan pleading posing as scholarship. All of which doesn’t mean the study of history is useless, only that for the most part, there is good cause History is housed in the Humanities and not in the Sciences.

    For myself, I find balancing Howard Zinn with Paul Johnson is most salubrious, that Roger Scruton is invaluable, and that recourse to original documents (where possible) is essential.

  6. From what I can tell, the real battle over American history in schools is over the end result: Is American Exceptionalism justified? To just ask if America was exceptional forgets that many nations have their own idiosyncrasies and that is sometimes confused with being exceptional.

    An expected authoritarian acceptance of American traditions follows the acceptance of American Exceptionalism. History is involved here because of the role myths play in fostering unity and submission. But when myths are based on fairy-tales, the core around which nationalism revolves becomes empty and unity and submission become the results of manipulation. Perhaps this explains why some object to the presence of fairy tales in history.

    I fully agree that there is a moral piety to learning from history because to think we have nothing to learn from those from our past is arrogant. Then again, sometimes traditionalists find it difficult to believe that those from the past can learn from any of us in the present.

    Some side notes include problem with the claim about the Kiwanis ended poverty did not seem to match the Kiwanis’ account of its own history. The link of progressives from the past with racism may not take into account that the bigotry seen there could be more a result of the times than from any progressive agenda.

    Finally, the highest purpose of history is that it provides an education that prepares us for both the present and future. Whether that education provides more warnings from the past than examples to emulate depends on how those from the past treated others.

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