The right's textbook freakout: What the fight over new A.P. history standards is really about

Conservatives are at war with the College Board over U.S. history. But proper education isn't among their concerns

Published February 3, 2015 7:36PM (EST)

Tea Party supporter William Temple                   (AP/David Goldman)
Tea Party supporter William Temple (AP/David Goldman)

Say what you want about the tenets of American conservatism, but at least it’s entertaining. But while things are likely to quiet down a bit this year on the federal level, what with the GOP’s many presidential aspirants spending their time on under-the-radar activities (like wooing donors and glad-handing state-level party hacks) and delaying their public courting of the GOP rank-and-file, it appears that that conservative base is more than ready to pick up the slack. Take the recent saber-rattling against Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) coming out of Georgia’s legislature as a case in point.

According to the Gainesville Times, Republican Georgia state Sen. William Ligon is sponsoring a resolution calling on the College Board to renounce the latest revisions to APUSH and to return to teaching the previous framework. Talking Points Memo reports that Ligon’s resolution describes the new APUSH framework as “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects … while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” Because of this radical revisionism, Ligon’s resolution threatens to cut off state funding for APUSH, and to urge federal lawmakers to follow suit. The measure hasn’t come up for a vote yet, but it’s already got the state superintendent’s backing.

If this all sounds to you like a milder retread of the Kanawha County textbook wars that rocked West Virginia in the mid-1970s, and which were excavated so well in “The Invisible Bridge,” you’re heading in the right direction. There are some differences. Today’s textbook activists are less focused on issues of sexuality than were their Ford-era forebears. They are also, thankfully, far less violent. On the other side, the folks behind the new standards nowadays are much less ideological (or at least less explicitly so) than were their predecessors, some of whom were quite open about their desire to change West Virginia’s social order, which they considered backwards and bigoted.

Nevertheless, the general contours of the debate, then and now, are eerily similar. In both cases, you have a small but dedicated bloc of reactionary populists who are fighting desperately to protect the truth from the advances of a radical, elitist cabal. And in both cases, you see those supporters of the new standards, who tend to be more educated and self-consciously cosmopolitan, react to the anti-reformers’ cries with a mix of bemusement and contempt. The most important and fundamental similarity, though, is this: At heart, a struggle over textbook standards is really a proxy war for the right to decide what it means to be an American.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, let’s turn back to Georgia, and the substance of Sen. Ligon’s complaints. Echoing the rhetoric that’s come the new APUSH standard’s critics, Ligon charges that the updated framework is unacceptable because, the Gainesville Times reports, it “minimizes discussion of America’s Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, [and] the religious influences on our nation’s history.” The resolution also slams the new APUSH for presenting a “biased and inaccurate view” of the role played by settlers in the country’s first century, as well as the role played by the U.S. government during the Cold War and the Great Depression. The College Board, to its credit, has previously responded strongly to claims such as these, arguing that the framework’s opponents have displayed “a blatant disregard for the facts.”

With all the talk of historical accuracy and facts (and “our nation’s historical integrity,” as Georgia’s superintendent Richard Woods incoherently put it), you’d figure the issue could be settled with relative ease. If it’s all empirical, after all, then you could simply rely on objective truth to resolve the dispute. But the fight here isn’t really about something as prosaic and technocratic as making sure Georgia’s AP students know when so-and-so was born, or when this or that war was ended. As former history teacher Larry Krieger, one of the leading organizers against the new APUSH framework, revealed in an October interview with TPM, it’s how kids are socialized — not how they’re educated — that’s in question.

Krieger is savvy enough in his conversation with TPM reporter Caitlin MacNeal to avoid placing his cause in a conservative frame. (He’s not persuasive on this point; but at least he tries.) Yet when he explains why the framework worries him so much, he reveals quite immediately that he’s got bigger things on his mind than simple historical truth. “[T]he concept of American exceptionalism has been deliberately scrubbed out of this document,” Krieger tells TPM. Arguing that the U.S. deploys troops around the world because they are “the defenders of liberty and freedom,” Krieger says if the College Board were to “scrub” American exceptionalism from APUSH, it would be “a real egregious injustice.”

The inclusion of troops into the argument is odd, maybe even a non-sequitur. But as Krieger continues, his reference to the Armed Forces begins to make sense. “People who call themselves liberals haven't really understood what ... American exceptionalism means,” he explains to TPM, “and why it is so extremely important that it be taught to our kids.” By Krieger’s reckoning, American exceptionalism isn’t important just because the U.S. is dope and students should learn dope things; it’s important because it is “what unites [Americans] as a people.” In contrast to our “ethnic differences” and “religious differences,” Krieger says, Americans are brought together by a shared belief in their nation’s superiority — or, as he puts it, “our core values.”

Keep in mind: Most of the complaints about the new APUSH framework concern the elevation of non-white, non-male perspectives. That would not be a charitable way to describe the activists’ worries, obviously — but it also would not be unfair. By teaching a version of U.S. history that emphasizes the views of those who suffered (or at least did not benefit) from the decisions of the powerful, APUSH, in the minds of people like Krieger, threatens the social fabric. What scares him and his supporters today is what scared the residents of Kanawha County in the ‘70s: that their children will ask them to defend beliefs once taken for granted, and will ask them questions for which there are no easy answers.

These are the fears that keep a certain type of conservative activist tossing and turning late at night. These are the anxieties that have led Krieger and so many others to decide that now is the time for those of us who are real Americans to “take our country back.” They'll do it through the ballot box, and they'll do it through a classroom text. When the stakes are this high, the location of the battlefield hardly makes a difference.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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