Free thought in AP US History must be protected

A person’s relationship with the country they live in can be more complicated than any relationship with a person.

Now, imagine someone is trying to tell you that the parts of that relationship that hurt, or felt unfair or crushed your dreams just weren’t that important; that they don’t really matter because they don’t fit someone else’s narrative.

The Oklahoma legislature has voted to defund teaching of the Advanced Placement United States history course due to its alleged lack of patriotism, and many states, including North Carolina, have followed suit recently with hearings to determine if the program is insufficiently committed to teaching “American exceptionalism.”

So what is American exceptionalism? It’s the philosophy that the United States is the “City on a Hill,” the inherent standard against which all others are measured, and often fall short, and that it deserves our unwavering support. Curiously, supporters of this philosophy often dodge the question of whether citizens of all countries should be so patriotic or if it only applies to Americans.

Rather than encouraging the presentation of the facts as we know them and allowing students to decide for themselves, which is what the AP framework itself demands, conservative school boards and legislatures are pushing to redefine the course to focus on what makes America special, good and ultimately right.

Obviously, how you feel about your country is your business, but this defunding isn’t about respecting differences of opinion. It’s taking a course that is designed to make students think deeply about both the best and worst points of U.S. history without leading them to a conclusion and turning it into an exercise in flag-waving.

This is part of the reason that many people from all over the world see America the way that they do: a country of deluded, haughty imperialists constantly patting ourselves on the back for our freedom and democracy while ignoring the blood and pain of the millions, many of whom were people of color, who suffered and died to build our nation.

But what those beating the tired drum of “patriotism” fail to understand is that the goal of the course is not to tear down America nor is it to build it up.

“The curriculum framework that follows is just that: a framework for conveying the content and skills typically required for college credit and placement,” according to the College Board’s official course materials. “In order for teachers to have flexibility in how they help students develop these skills and understandings, the framework is not a curriculum and thus does not consist of a list of the historical content.”

Morris Johnson, an Early College AP U.S. teacher, says that his mission is to encourage students to seek their own answers from the facts presented.

“My approach is not to try and teach from one ideological point of view or another,” Johnson said. “Part of the beauty of America is that we have been a very politically pragmatic people … Why not teach (students) how to question effectively, and let them come to their own conclusions?”

Rachel Henley, an Early College sophomore taking APUSH, said that the course has actually improved her opinion of the United States.

“Previously I had a pretty bad opinion of America, so it’s actually probably influenced my opinion for the better,” said Henley. “To start with we were very isolationist and slowly became less so. When we came out of that, we started to spread democracy, which in some cases ended up being imperialism and took advantage of nations, but we also helped a lot of places.”

The study of history is about critical thinking, and that’s what APUSH teaches. If teachers are pushing their students toward a belief system, then fault lies with the teacher, not the curriculum framework.

Thousands of students have had this opportunity to take a tour of the soaring highs and deplorable lows of the American experience. And my guess is that, when they’re finished, a lot may have experiences much like Henley’s: a reverence for the pain and sacrifices of those who were crushed under the lows, but also a greater appreciation of fantastic diversity and heritage of our culture and the possibilities made possible by our history.

The stories that make up our history belong to all of us, and we cannot let others make our choices about how to interpret them.