Timothy Egan is the kind of guy you’d think I could agree with: He thinks history is important! He thinks we should write history to engage and fascinate our readers! He thinks assaults on high school Advanced Placement history classes are foolish, as he states in his recent essay on the misguided attempts in Oklahoma to control the A.P. American history curriculum!
I agree with him on all of the above, but then he goes and writes something just as dumb and as dishonest as any opportunistic Okie legislator would write:
With the latest initiatives, the party of science denial is now getting into history denial. On the academic front, they have a point, indirectly. Much of the A.P history framework is boring, bland, and sounds like it was written by committee, which it was. There’s little narrative, drama, heroics or personality — in other words, the real-life stuff that makes for thrilling history.
Here’s a sample “learning objective” from the current national course and exam description from the College Board: “Analyze the role of economic, political, social and ethnic factors on the formation of regional identities in what would become the United States from the colonial period through the 19th century.” And you wonder why the humanities are in trouble.
That’s right: “a sample ‘learning objective'” apparently must be just as thrilling and as full of “narrative, drama, heroics [and] personality” as Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, otherwise it’s just further proof that historians and educators are just as bad as the Oklahoma legislators who want history to be all happy talk about the Founding Fathers.
Egan pretends not to know that there’s a difference in the ways that educators communicate with each other, and the ways in which they communicate with their students, readers of history, or the general public about their work. He writes as though an internal process document or a sample exam question exactly describes what is taught in A.P. high school classrooms. He writes to suggest that classroom educators aren’t smart enough to know how to talk to their own students about history, and implies that they’re smart enough to communicate in professional shorthand with one another about the boring (but necessary) stuff.
And then he indicts not just A.P history teachers, not just historians, but all of the humanities. Give me a freaking break. By this standard, I suppose we should assume that all memos and emails written at The New York Times are worthy of Pulitzer Prizes. One dry memo about the deadline for open enrollments this year, and you wonder why the newspaper industry is in trouble!
This is by no means an isolated example of Egan’s stupidity. (Right there, I initially wrote “false stupidity,” because I assume this is just a pose Egan assumes to pander to his imagined audience. But I erased the “false” part, because it doesn’t matter if he believes what he writes about history educators or not–he’s still selling the stupid. And if you’re selling the stupid, then you must own the stupid!)
For example, he pretended last year not to understand that complaints and protests against Condoleeza Rice’s appearance at Rutgers were in fact examples of the very liberty of speech he accused the protesters of hating. He called Rutgers students “bigots” and “lefty thought police” because some expressed their objections to Rice’s appearance at their graduation. (Remember, they did nothing to shut her down her speech–she voluntarily withdrew from the Rutgers commencement ceremony because students had exercised their First Amendment rights and complained about her!) Once again, Egan can pretend he’s the only guy who “gets it.”
I understand why Egan pretends that he’s the only guy in the room who understands both the importance of a complete version of American history as well as the “narrative, drama, heroics [and] personality” that brings historical teaching and writing to life. It’s his brand to pretend that he’s the only guy who gets it! I don’t like that he likes to beat on university professors, but whatever: I can take it. I’m a good writer and a good teacher, so his shadow-boxing doesn’t bother me. The man has to make a living, after all. I’ve got tenure, and he doesn’t.
But it bothers me that Egan is so unoriginal, and that he punches down. Is it really courageous and truth-telling to beat on the scholars and high-school history teachers who develop and teach the A.P. standards, many of whom also spend part of their summers grading A.P. exams? Is it really so politically incorrect to tell college students these days to STFU? Of course neither college students nor history teachers are beyond criticism, but Egan willfully misrepresents their work so that he can preen and pretend that he gets it when no one else does. Considering his recent targets, how is this much different from the anti-intellectualism of Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly?
If Egan bothered to read anything about the history of education in the U.S., most of which is written by us boring, old professors, he’d see just how hackneyed and stereotyped his complaints really are. History is always too important to be left to the historians, and the world has never wanted for lamentations about the rising generation. Really. You can look it up and get it yourself.