Whitewashed History Is Unpatriotic

The politically motivated reimagining of Advanced Placement U.S. History has drawn scant attention. Cowed by the aggressive conservative lobby, the AP curriculum was quite literally whitewashed. Alan Singer cogently summarized the whitewash in a Huffington Post piece early this week:

The 2015 revisions seem designed to promote patriotism and a belief in "American exceptionalism" rather than the critical examination of history.

According to a review by the Atlantic Constitution, they emphasize national identity and unity, the ideals of liberty, citizenship, self-governance, the role of its founders in establish (sic) these principles, the sacrifices of military personnel during war, the importance of religious groups in shaping American society, and the productive role of free enterprise, entrepreneurship, and innovation in shaping U.S. history.

The implications of this approach to education are evident in current political debate. If anything, our schools must become more critical of our past, not less. To de-emphasize the stain of slavery, the persistence of racism, the reality of sexism and the history of homophobia is to sentence future generations to ongoing social injustice.

Just look at the rhetoric:

"All lives matter," -- Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley.

I attribute these two quotes in an effort to be non-partisan in my disappointment with today's political leaders.

The Clinton and O'Malley declarations were made in response to challenges from Black Lives Matter, the campaign arising from the spate of police violence against unarmed black boys, men and women. This campaign is gaining momentum and seems the contemporary embodiment of urgent anti-racist work.

"All lives matter" is a trite rejoinder to "black lives matter" and diminishes the ugly reality of racism. It is a classic and childish false equivalence. Of course "all lives matter." But white lives have never "not mattered." It's like citing your own recent bout with the flu in response to a friend who confides her diagnosis with terminal cancer. "Well, I'm sick too!"

Fiorina's statement, "all issues are women's issues," was made to distance herself from feminism and feminists. According to an August 12th New York Times piece, Fiorina added, "As a woman I am insulted when I hear somebody talk about 'women's issues.'" Insulted?

As with "all lives matter," "all issues are women's issues" diminishes the reality of sexism. Of course "all issues are women's issues." But particular issues disproportionately and persistently plague women. Subsuming these issues into a broad category creates a similar false equivalence. Torturing my own analogy, this is tantamount to claiming that cancer is just one of many afflictions -- "Gee, we all get sick sometimes" -- and that special efforts to treat and cure cancer are somehow inappropriate and offensive. Perhaps Fiorina is "insulted to hear somebody talk about" cancer research too, since she evidently doesn't have it.

I recall an old comedy bit performed by Martin Mull. He sang the blues, lyrics moaning and groaning with the agonizing burdens of middle class suburbia: A too-warm martini; charcoal briquettes that failed to light in the grill; dandelions soiling the pristine Kentucky bluegrass. Woe is me!

In the warm glow of America's mythical meritocracy, it is always irritating to hear those with privilege dismiss the concerns of others: Entitled men who claim that feminism is just a bunch of unattractive women bitching about their unhappy lives; or white folks who think anti-racist work is done by resentful black people who should just work harder; or rich people who think poor people are lazy "takers."

Many who enjoy money and privilege use the term "class warfare" to dismiss any observation that the playing field in America is actually not flat. For women, folks of color, gay people, and others, navigating America's "meritocracy" is like playing soccer uphill on a 5% slope into a 30 mph headwind. But if they point it out, it's characterized as a symptom of unjustified resentment.

Sweeping dismissals of racism, sexism, heterosexism, poverty and injustice of all kinds are central planks in the Republican platform. This is nothing new. But the dismissals are infuriating when coming from members of groups that have suffered the slings and arrows of social and economic injustice. Carly Fiorina should be ashamed for betraying the interests of women. Republican candidate Ben Carson, who thinks the answer to racism is for everyone to play nice together, should be ashamed too. He is the Clarence Thomas of presidential politics.

Folks like Fiorina and Carson are oddly parallel to the George W. Bush phenomenon. He was famously described as "born on third base and thought he hit a triple."

Fiorina was born on second and made her way to third base, leaving the base paths littered with those she stepped on or over on her journey to privilege. Carson started modestly and achieved admirably. I am simply baffled as to his lack of empathy.

I have been attacked for criticizing the notion of American exceptionalism, but it is neither truthful nor dignified to arrogantly proclaim ourselves "above" all others. That's not a recipe for international harmony. But I do believe that the principles and structures put in place at our founding are brilliant, prescient and enduring. Because of that brilliance, the United States can serve as a beacon and an example.

If our noble experiment in representative democracy is to thrive and prosper, it will be because we are confident enough for self-examination, modesty and humility. Steeping children in uncritical patriotism and self-congratulation is not education. It is propaganda and no decent educator should fall for it.