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People Are an Abstraction, American Exceptionalism is Not?

Liberals have killed Christmas and are killing Christians and Christianity, and by God if now they haven’t killed American history too, says Fox News. According to Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy, the College Board, the folks behind the Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) course, have ruined history for white folks like him.

Doocy warned that “U.S. history may be history,” because U.S. history isn’t U.S. history if it isn’t about American Exceptionalism and about the people that made America so exceptional – the white Europeans.

Lis Power at Media Matters for America explains that,

Fox News has spent the week hyping an open letter published by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a conservative group critical of the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History Course framework that the College Board released last year. Fifty-five scholars signed the letter, which claims the revised guidelines focus on “the conflict between social groups” rather than “sources of national unity and cohesion.” An NAS press release about the letter says the new framework “ignores American exceptionalism.”

According to the NAS press release, “American history as taught in the new APUSH course, according to the letter, focuses on “the conflict between social groups,” and does not pay enough attention to “sources of national unity and cohesion.”

Oh no! Sounds to me like actual history is being taught. We can’t teach actual history when we could be teaching conservative ideology (i.e. the primacy of the white male) instead.

Fox News supports the idea that the College Board has an agenda to push, and that, of course, religion has been pushed aside (apparently in favor of studying ethnic groups), leading to Doocy’s shocked exclamation, “So they’ve left the religion part out?”

No, they haven’t left religion out. In fact, if you look at the curriculum framework you find,

CUL-4 Analyze how changing religious ideals, Enlightenment beliefs, and republican thought shaped the politics, culture, and society of the colonial era through the early Republic.

Yet according to Whitney Neal, of the Bill of Rights Institute, “It’s there … almost like as an afterthought, right? It’s kind of like down the page a couple.”

If religion is an afterthought, so is the Enlightenment, and without the Enlightenment we would have no Declaration of Independence, no Constitution. Traditional religion went into the writing of neither.

We are told in the NAS letter that the 2014 guidelines will lead to “imbalance” and “bias” in the test, as though “imbalance” and “bias” were not already inherent in the previous presentation of American history.

According to the NAS,

The 2010 framework treated national identity, including “views of the American national character and ideas about American exceptionalism” as a central theme. But the 2014 framework makes a dramatic shift away from that emphasis, choosing instead to grant far more extensive attention to “how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic identities.”

So the problem here is, unsurprisingly, “multiculturalism,” the idea that people other than the mighty white Europeans had some influence over what America was to become. The idea that women actually did something more than make babies and cook their men’s food is offensive to the scholars of the NAS.

Even the use of the term “ethnic identities” betrays bias, as though everybody on these shores, including white Europeans, were not ethnic. They might as well out and say they only want the AP test to focus on white Europeans.

At least then I could respect them for their honesty, if not their bigoted views of history.

I well remember my first exposure to the idea that American history was more than a history of white men: Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America (1974) by Gary Nash. I was not introduced to it until taking a college history course. I should not have had to wait so long to be introduced to the idea that America was more than white people. No one should have to wait that long.

The NAS letter objects that,

The new framework is organized around such abstractions as “identity,” “peopling,” “work, exchange, and technology,” and “human geography” while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution.

I would argue that there is nothing abstract about people. We are the “reason for the season,” so to speak. It is American exceptionalism that is the abstraction.

Yet you can see why conservatives would object to “Peopling.” The AP Course and Exam Description tells us,

This theme focuses on why and how the various people who moved to, from, and within the United States adapted to their new social and physical environments. Students examine migration across borders and long distances, including the slave trade and internal migration, and how both newcomers and indigenous inhabitants transformed North America. The theme also illustrates how people responded when “borders crossed them.” Students explore the ideas, beliefs, traditions, technologies, religions, and gender roles that migrants/immigrants and annexed peoples brought with them and the impact these factors had on both these peoples and on U.S. society.

Any time a course of study is not narrowly focused on the mighty Europeans, there are going to be problems. But vital as their contribution was, United States history was not limited to the intrepid Jesus Body Double – the Northern European male – blazing his way from sea to shining sea, musket in one hand, Bible in the other.

The Spaniards were already here before the first English settlers set foot on the New World. And before them, the indigenous inhabitans. Borders did cross peoples and everything that came with each succeeding wave of migrants and immigrants changed America.

As the description says, national identity was influenced by migration.

Key Concept 3.3: Migration within North America, cooperative interaction, and competition for resources raised questions about boundaries and policies, intensified conflicts among peoples and nations, and led to contests over the creation of a multiethnic, multiracial national identity.

It is why we refer to ourselves as a nation of immigrants, rather than as a nation of mighty white Northern Europeans.

If you want to know how conservative these people – the NAS – are, who oppose changes to the APUSH course, William Donohue – Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, the guy who has said non-religious people are insane, that Muslims and artists must become Catholic to stop further terrorist attacks, that Church abuse victims were active participants, was a member.

By no means are all the scholars identifying themselves as members of the NAS as extreme as Bill Donohue – Victor Davis Hanson is a respected military historian and I have several of his books on my shelf – but do not be fooled into thinking that NAS opposition to the 2014 guidelines are not supporting a conservative agenda where American history is concerned.

As a general rule of thumb, if they oppose something, that something, whatever it is, should be seriously considered. It is true that America is changing, and that changes in how we study history reflects, to some degree, those changes. But the real changes – the substantive changes – are in recognizing, as College Board has done, that what we now know about the past has changed, and that belief in an abstraction like American Exceptionalism is perhaps less important than concrete things like people – wherever they’re from, whatever their religious beliefs, whatever their gender, and, perhaps most importantly of all, whatever their skin color happens to be.

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