Stuart Whatley,  February 26, 2015

Dangerous Designs on (AP) American History

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Any city upon a hill invariably rests on a mound of bullshit, and the extent to which one knows it depends largely on one’s willingness to inhale through his or her nose. In this sense, we might simplify the ongoing debate over the College Board’s updated AP U.S. History framework as a debate over whether or not public schools should be cultivating future generations of mouth-breathers.

A wave of recent proposals in state legislatures across the south and southwest seems to advocate for the former. The College Board claims to be emulating “current thinking” in the field of history by encouraging a focus on larger concepts, historical argumentation, and critical thinking skills, rather than the previous, superficial focus on rote people, places and events (PDF). But state legislators in places like Georgia have proffered resolutions charging that the new framework favors a “biased and inaccurate view of many important themes and events in American history,” and that it maligns “American free enterprise” and that system’s role in the country’s development over time (PDF). (And this language apes similar resolutions in other states.)

The opening shot in this latest installment of the textbook wars was fired last year in an op-ed by Jane Robbins, of the American Principles Project, and Larry Krieger, a former AP U.S. History teacher. They complain that, under the new framework, the “units on colonial America stress the development of a ‘rigid racial hierarchy’ and a ‘strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority…’” while ignoring “the United States’ founding principles and their influence in inspiring the spread of democracy and galvanizing the movement to abolish slavery.”

What the new framework actually “stresses” is a matter of opinion, and one can only wonder what this particular alternative would actually look like.  Surely it would impose upon AP history teachers the same pedagogical dilemma that “teaching the controversy” or “equal time” did a decade ago, when curricular Intelligent Design reached its apex before being summarily routed in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in 2005. Indeed, laissez faire free enterprise might be said to be the true American religion, but to teach its history within a starry-eyed exceptionalist framework is as intellectually untenable as “design” (creationism) is in biology. With the corporate class’s or its convenient militia’s view notwithstanding, historical scholarship on early American capitalism over the past few decades precludes anything of the kind.

As documented most recently in Cornell historian Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, the story of early American free enterprise is inextricable from the story of American slavery at its most hellish and depraved. In fact, the inclination to delink the two—or to suggest that capitalist free enterprise should be credited with actually replacing “pre-modern” chattel slavery—invokes the same revisionist legerdemain that has been used to disavow the most shameful elements of our history and perpetuate social inequities.

Baptist proves that, far from being some inefficient, regrettable eyesore, slavery was an indispensible unifying force in inchoate American political society; and economically, cotton picked by slaves modernized and industrialized the western world by supplying global textile markets—with massive returns for northern investors and southern slaveholders alike. Cotton output, and individual slave-worker productivity with it, were accomplished through what Baptist calls the “pushing system”—which is to say, keenly honed, systematic torture and, mostly in the case of the women, sexual violence. “Using torture,” he writes, “slavery’s entrepreneurs extracted an amount of innovation virtually equal in numerical measure to all the mechanical ingenuity in all the textile mills in the Western world.”

That’s a lot to come to terms with, especially for the nation’s delicate youth, whom many would like to see grow into cocksure entrepreneurs and members of the corporate class. As it was with the anti-Darwinists, who assigned to evolution the nonsensical status of “materialist superstition,” teaching an academic history of American free enterprise poses a certain ontological threat to the exceptionalist approach. It requires that fabulist scholasticism supersede lettered, evidentiary inquiry as the designated means for making claims to truth, at which points truth has been consigned to a realm of historical numinosity.

Teaching American history as a capitalist parable of moral progress requires that students accept mythology as reality. It demands that they see an abstract messianic system instead of an economic and political complex of power relations. And it requires that they abnegate the very cognitive faculties education is meant to instill: critical thinking, evidence-based argumentation, and the humility to let one’s mind change with new information.

A parable, even when it defies available evidence, has a sirenic civic appeal. National mythologies, if agreed upon, create shared consciousness. Some say the binding benefits of these white lies outweigh their moral costs. But most of us should recognize this as bullshit, and dangerous bullshit at that.

Obscuring the privations of youth allows for their continuance in maturity. American capitalism will probably be fine with either scenario. Will American democracy? The College Board is listening to public feedback, bullshit or otherwise, until the end of this month.

Stuart Whatley is an Associate Editor at Project Syndicate.

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