Exclusion and Exceptionalism

Recently, in Oklahoma, a legislative committee passed a bill to ban the teaching of AP US History in the state. The current curriculum has come under fire from the right for being unpatriotic, leftist and un-American. In particular, the College Board has been critiqued for omitting information about the founders, particularly in order to undermine the principle of “American Exceptionalism.” Movements against the current College Board course curriculum have also arisen in Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, Colorado and North Carolina.

Having taken the course in North Carolina, I can reasonably see how the structure of the course, the teaching critical thinking skills, and the use of primary sources that emphasize the complexity of American History, could lead some students, such as myself, to doubt and wrestle with the doctrine of American Exceptionalism. It was also in that course that I attained the foundation of my skills in assessing biases and the impact of point of view in the evaluation of sources.

Using these skills, I would argue that the current criticism surrounding AP US History is not a matter of inclusion, but exclusion. The issue that critics of the current AP US History curriculum have with the course is not that it excludes information about the founders, but that it includes information from individuals that complicate a public narrative of American Exceptionalism. These critics are not nearly so concerned with including information about the founders but excluding the information that complicates their preferred, simplified narrative. AP US History provides the information that students require in order to begin question who is an American and who had access to this “exceptional” society.

Such conclusions and evaluations of American history, including events with lasting impacts and the formation of cultural continuities that persist to this day, can have incredibly political ramifications. It makes sense then that the debate over AP US History has left classrooms, dinner tables, teacher break-rooms and parent-teacher conferences, entered into political forums.

Central to this political debate lies the question of what students should be reading and how they should read them. Critics of AP US History want more writings that focus on the founders, and further that do not complicate their preferred understanding of the founders. Such a narrow focus would prevent students from engaging with the complexities of US History because it would deny them the information that they need in order to do so. Students don’t have to dismiss American Exceptionalism if this information is included, but they definitely cannot if they are not given such information. Of the two options, I find the route proposed by the College Board to be far less slanted than that currently proposed by this legislative committee in Oklahoma, because students would at least be given the opportunity to consider both sides.

Whether students come to the conclusion that America is exceptional, or that America is in need of rigorous critique, is less of an issue than whether or not students are given all the information that they need in order to decide between the two. Classrooms should not be the place that we impose political views, but give students the choice, and the information to engage with history in a complex and meaningful way.

Devin

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