For the past several decades congressional representatives and journalists across the United States have criticized history taught at the university level as “biased” and “liberal.”
For example, the Advanced Placement history exam has recently come under fire from congressional representatives who criticized the exam’s content as distorted and too negative. Rep. Dan Fisher, R-Oklahoma, claimed that the exam emphasizes what “is bad about America” and characterizes the United States as a “nation of exploiters and oppressors.”
Critics argued that the exam focused too much on ending slavery, the treatment of American Indians, confronting white supremacy and other “undesirable” aspects of U.S. history.
They would prefer that students focus only on heroic men, memorize dates and ignore anything remotely controversial. AP relented to the pressure and changed its curriculum.
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Florida’s Legislature has gone further. Instead of waging an overt political battle with state universities, the Legislature simply revised its educational standards to prevent students from having to take history. Several years ago, the Legislature passed an educational bill that has radically altered undergraduate education.
This legislation reduced the number of social-science credit hours from 36 to 30. History has been dramatically affected by these new regulations.
It is entirely conceivable that undergraduate students in Florida can earn their bachelor’s degree without ever taking a history class.
The idea that it is a “liberal bias” that leads professors to teach students about some of the tragic missteps in America’s past is patently absurd. But it is even more ludicrous to suggest that it is subversive to teach students that America has made mistakes.
Yet, admitting that the United States has made errors is difficult for some to grapple with, much less apologize for. As George H.W. Bush famously declared, “I will never apologize for the United States of America ever — I don’t care what the facts are.”
Understanding our past failings will give students the tools that they will need to build a better society. The ironic truth in these accusations of “liberal bias” in historical education, then, is that the critics overtly seek to create a biased version of history. And, not to mention, an historically inaccurate one as well.
History offers students an important tool — the ability to think critically. Critical thinking enables people to analyze, interpret, process, and synthesize information from a variety of sources. It also helps promote independent thinking.
This might be disconcerting because our future graduate may raise questions about the state of our socioeconomic system or demand accountability.
However, critical thinking provides a valuable skill set for employers who want workers that can think independently and assess information from a variety of sources.
Students have nothing to gain from a curriculum that disguises us as a perfect nation, and we have nothing to profit by failing to tell a generation of students the truth about ourselves.
Perhaps even more importantly, critics should also be cognizant of the pitfalls of teaching a nationalistic and patriotic version of history. But our political elites do have something to gain — the maintenance of the status quo in which they hold power.
Brian D’Haeseleer teaches U.S. history at Tallahassee Community College.