Published September 9, 2014
What is the core of the American story? What is American history about? For a long time, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was thought to offer the most succinct and profound reply to these questions. The heart of the American story was said to be the Founding, with its principles of liberty and equality. American history was thus a study of our efforts to more fully realize republican principles, often in the face of our own flaws and failings. American history was also about the defense in peace and war of a unique experiment—a nation bound by democratic norms, rather than by ties of blood.
More recently, revisionist historians have developed a different answer to the question of what America’s story is about. From their perspective, at the heart of our country’s history—like the history of any other powerful nation—lies the pursuit of empire, of dominion over others. In this view, the formative American moment was the colonial assault on the Indians. At its core, say the revisionists, America’s history is about our capacity for self-delusion, our endless attempts to justify raw power grabs with pretty fairy-tales about democracy.
The growing dispute over the College Board’s new Framework for AP U.S. History (APUSH) turns around these clashing views of the American story. The creators and defenders of the new APUSH Framework are adherents of a radically revisionist approach to American history. That is why the Framers and the principles of our Constitutional system receive short shrift in the new AP guidelines, and why the conflict between settlers and Indians has taken center stage instead.
The College Board claims that teachers are perfectly free to illustrate the new Framework’s themes by citing great figures of American history. The problem with this is that the Framework’s core concepts have been thoroughly shaped by the revisionist perspective. There is plenty of room for the Founders as exemplars of prejudice or blinkered ambition, yet far less opportunity to present them as architects of a principled republicanism.
The College Board’s defenders have hinted at the revisionist perspective that inspired the redesigned APUSH Framework, yet they have not properly explained that perspective to the public. A more complete explanation would be controversial, even shocking. To see why, let us turn to the fulcrum of the revisionist view, the topic of Native Americans.
Defending the new APUSH Framework in The New York Times, James R. Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, emphasizes the importance and legitimacy of historical revisionism. Grossman speaks as if recent trends in historical study were as objective and verifiable as the latest medical research, citing the debunked myth of the “vanishing Indian” as an example.
Responding to critics at the History News Network, University of Colorado historian Fred Anderson offers a first-hand account of his role in the initial meetings out of which the new APUSH Framework emerged. Anderson, a scholar of Native Americans, recounts his efforts to expand the AP course’s “scanty treatment of pre-Columbian and colonial history.” Indeed the greatly expanded treatment of these periods at the expense of the Founding has proven to be one of the most controversial aspects of the redesigned Framework. Anderson insists that this change has nothing to do with portraying America “as a nation founded on oppression, privilege, and racism,” but is simply “a more rigorous reflection of the current state of knowledge and practice in our discipline.”
What Anderson does not say is that “current practice” in early American history is to indict the Founders for oppression, privilege, and racism. Nor does he add that he himself has offered a sweeping and dramatic inversion of the traditional American narrative, turning virtually the whole of U.S. History into a tale of imperialists-in-denial, all based on his so-called debunking of “the myth of the vanishing Indian.”
Anderson’s proposed new narrative of American history vacillates between ignoring core events of our political history and dismissing them as delusional window-dressing for America’s imperialist ambitions. He aims to show us ourselves through the eyes of our enemies, narrating the story of the Alamo, for example, through the eyes of Santa Anna, the Mexican commander who besieged and then executed its surviving defenders, with the goal of persuading us of the justice of the Mexican view.
Anderson explicitly rejects Lincoln’s framing of the American narrative. In Anderson’s view, the significance of the Founding has been overblown, whereas our encroachments on the Indians are the true paradigm of the American story. His purpose in shaping this new narrative is clearly to stir opposition to a forward-leaning defense of American interests abroad. He also hopes to dampen our ardor for American heroes like George Washington, Sam Houston, and Teddy Roosevelt.
In other words, Anderson’s proposed new narrative of American history closely matches the narrative of the new APUSH Framework, and is clearly political in character. Anderson’s ambitious new account of American history is fair game for interpretive debate and discussion, of course, but it is hardly verifiable and proven on the model of experimental findings in medicine, chemistry, or physics. While Anderson himself participated in early deliberations over the new APUSH course, he has also directly influenced key members of the committee that actually wrote the redesigned Framework. So to understand the fallacies of the framework, we’ll need to take a closer look at the sources, content, and influence of Anderson’s perspective on American history.
In 2008, just after Anderson’s role in the initial phase of the APUSH redesign ended, the College Board published a “Curriculum Module” recommending new approaches to the teaching of “White-Native American Contact in Early American History.” Anderson wrote an account of revisionist approaches to Native American history at the head of the booklet, while several teachers followed with lesson plans designed to incorporate Anderson’s perspective.
The booklet was introduced by Jason George, of the Bryn Mawr School for Girls in Baltimore, MD, and one of the lesson plans was drawn up by Geri Hastings, of Catonsville High School in Catonsville, MD. Both George and Hastings went on to become members of the committee that actually drafted the new APUSH Framework. Hastings, in fact, was one of only two people to sit on both the first and second committees in charge of the redesign. Since Anderson, by his own account, had managed to expand coverage of the colonial and pre-Columbian periods at the initial redesign meetings, it made sense for the College Board to prepare guidelines for teaching the newly expanded sections of the course.
Anderson’s contribution to the new Curriculum Module highlights the work of Francis Jennings, the most famous critic of “the myth of the vanishing Indian.” Jennings’ goal, says Anderson, was to “rewrite early American history with native people at its center.” Jennings argued that “the Colonial period, not the American Revolution, had determined the fundamental character of the United States. That character was not republican, but imperial.”
How did Jennings place the Indians at the center of American history? He did it by arguing that patterns of Indian resistance to white encroachment essentially dictated patterns of colonial and American settlement. Whether this means that Indians determined “the most important historical outcomes in North America from the beginnings of colonization through the early 19th century,” depends on what you deem “most important” about America. Both Jennings’ and Anderson’s judgments on that score are questionable, as we’ll see.
Jennings was crudely polemical in his attacks on the traditional American historical narrative. His goal was to turn America’s Founders into the villains of their own story. The New York Times review of Jennings’ final book was actually titled “The Founding Villains.” Deeply shaped by the War in Vietnam, Jennings dismissed America’s democratic pretensions as a “fairy tale,” a propagandistic trick designed to marshal public support for imperialist ventures. The idea that American Founders like Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, exhibited “civic virtue” was, for Jennings, little more than a joke.
As Anderson points out, while Jennings’ crude attacks impeded recognition of his work, Jennings did inspire a new generation of historians to offer essentially the same arguments in more tactful language. No one has worked harder to make Jennings’ radical revisionism respectable than Anderson himself. Anderson’s book, The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500—2000 (co-authored with Andrew Cayton), is essentially an attempt to extend Jennings intellectual framework to American history as a whole.
Anderson’s target in The Dominion of War is the American conviction that liberty and equality are the “core values of the Republic.” Believing this, says Anderson, Americans find it difficult to see their actions as imperialistic, as motivated by anything other than a legitimate defense of liberty.
In seeking to disabuse Americans of their overly democratic self-image, Anderson expresses frustration with “a grand narrative so deeply embedded in American culture that [it] persists despite the long-running efforts of professional historians to revise [it].” This delusive conviction that America’s democratic principles are at the root of our history and foreign policy must be replaced, says Anderson, by a frank acknowledgment of our desire for dominion over others. Anderson then adds:
To found a narrative of American development on the concept of dominion is to forgo the exceptionalist traditions of American culture—those durable notions that the United States is essentially not like other nations but rather an example for them to emulate, a “shining city on a hill”—in favor of a perspective more like the one from which historians routinely survey long periods of European, African, or Asian history.
American exceptionalism is out and America as a self-deluded imperialist power is in. Academics finally get to force their cynical revisionism on a public that stubbornly clings to the Founding. These are the ideological and political underpinnings of the new APUSH Framework.
True, Anderson occasionally concedes that American history is actually a complex mixture of liberty and imperialism. In practice, however, he either ignores the democratic side of this equation or dismisses it as an illusion. In its review of The Dominion of War, The Wall Street Journal points out that Anderson and Cayton “don’t even mention the Declaration of Independence in their discussion of the American founding.”
A convincing revision of American history along the lines of Jennings and Anderson would have to integrate a detailed interpretation of our political and Constitutional history with an account of our alleged imperialism. It would need to expose the supposed hollowness of our democratic pretensions in considerable detail. Yet Jennings and Anderson make only the most limited gestures in this direction. They offer a questionable critique, rather than the new grand narrative they advertise.
Jennings and Anderson are able to place Native American influence and white imperialism at the center of American history only by treating the acquisition of territory as what matters most. This assumes what is to be proven. The structure, function, and underlying rationale of our political system is ignored, rather than debunked. That is why Jennings and Anderson fail. In any case, treating their interpretations of what is “central” to American history as an objectively established “finding” is ludicrous.
Consider Anderson’s retelling of the Alamo story from the perspective of Santa Anna and the Mexicans. His argument depends on the reader accepting Mexican accusations of American imperialism and hypocrisy. Yet nearly everything in Anderson’s account tends to strengthen the case for the advocates of Texas independence. We already know that Santa Anna sparked a revolt when he nullified the Mexican Constitution and declared himself dictator. Anderson adds to this an account of the deeper habits of thought behind Santa Anna’s actions. That cultural and biographical account may help explain Santa Anna’s dictatorship, yet it hardly excuses it. I put down the chapter thinking that the heroes of the Alamo had gauged Santa Anna’s intentions with remarkable accuracy. Anderson never actually offers an argument to debunk the Texan defense of liberty. He seems to think that merely presenting the Mexican point of view in sympathetic terms is enough to settle the dispute. It is not.
If I were a citizen of Texas, I’d be as proud as ever of the heroes of the Alamo after reading Anderson’s book. But I’d be appalled that someone like Anderson had managed to gain control of the history curriculum in my state.
In the AP Curriculum Module on Native Americans, Geri Hastings, one of the most influential authors of the redesigned APUSH Framework, follows up Anderson’s account with a lesson plan. She asks students to imagine that they’ve been hired by “an eighteenth-century human rights organization.” Their job is to decide whether the British, French, or Spanish colonizers had treated the Indians more harshly, “and to indict the harshest colonizer for ‘crimes against humanity.’”
Defenders of the redesigned APUSH Framework deny a political agenda. All we’re doing, they say, is teaching students how to “think like historians,” how to deploy critical thinking skills and analyze primary sources with the cool detachment of an objective and mature professional academic. Sadly, teaching students how to bring our forebears up on charges of war crimes is what “thinking like a historian” has been reduced to in this age of the leftist Academy. It’s got little to do with detachment.
My earlier account of the influence of “transnationalism” on the authors of the new APUSH Framework is entirely compatible with the perspectives of Anderson and Hastings. Transnationalists abhor American exceptionalism, have a leftist foreign-policy agenda, a penchant for presenting history through the eyes of America’s enemies, and a passion for bringing the United States to heel through the influence of foreign law and international “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs). Hastings’ classroom exercise is an embarrassingly anachronistic attempt to train students in precisely this sort of “transnational progressivism.” This is historical “presentism” in extreme form, with moral conclusions built in from the start. Why not have students probe and debate the complex cycles of cruelty and misunderstanding between settlers and Indians instead?
Hastings’ larger strategy for teaching Native American history is unabashedly designed to elicit partisanship, rather than objective “thinking skills.” “Students might even cheer,” she says, “as the American Indian Movement of the 1970s gained strength and undertook numerous legal battles to recover Indian lands.” So students are literally supposed to become cheerleaders for the American Indian Movement (AIM), a decidedly radical group whose actions remain controversial to this day. Should students then follow the leftist fashion and support a pardon for Leonard Peltier, an AIM gunman from the mid-1970s serving a life sentence for murder?
The new APUSH Framework shorts political and economic history in the post WWII era, as well as at the Founding, and is top-heavy instead with bows to various left-leaning movements of the 1960s and 1970s, including the movement of American Indians. If you suspected this had more to do with political cheerleading than a balanced presentation of history, Hastings’ lesson plan confirms it.
We must conclude that what the College Board presents as objectively based historical revisions and politically neutral pedagogical techniques are nothing of the sort. Critical thinking skills are deployed only against the traditional American narrative. Leftist pressure groups elicit cheerleading. America’s Founding is demoted, not because revisionists have proven it marginal, but because they dread and abhor its political legacy. In sum, the College Board’s pretensions to political neutrality are a sham.
What is American history about? I’m sticking with Lincoln.
Many will disagree, yet that is the point. The five-page outline that used to guide APUSH left plenty of room for the teaching of history from a variety of viewpoints. The very idea of the College Board effectively nationalizing the teaching of American history via the creation of a lengthy and inevitably controversial Framework is mistaken. The College Board needs to return to a brief conceptual outline that leaves states, school districts, and parents free to make their own decisions. That is the real American way, as any good student of the Founding could tell you.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.