This morning on the Twitter, my fellow Coloradoan Paul Harvey directed me to an article at The Atlantic by a young whippersnapper, Michael Conway, who was himself a student in an Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History course in 2008-09. He writes about “The Problem with History Classes,” by which he seems to mean “The Problem with High School History Classes,” and rehearses the argument that it’s important to show students that history is not in fact a linear narrative of consensual facts but rather aggressively contested ground on which historians and students disagree, sometimes loudly and rancorously. Yes indeed! Although history itself is sometimes a bitterly contested ground, I’d be hard pressed to find an AP-USH teacher or a Ph.D.-holding scholar of U.S. history who would disagree with this point.
Conway then says that no one shared the contested nature of historical inquiry with him until he went to college, which surprised me because he took AP-USH, and I thought the point of that was introducing students to college-level ideas and analysis. He writes:
When I took AP U.S. History, I jumbled these diverse histories into one indistinct narrative. Although the test involved open-ended essay questions, I was taught that graders were looking for a firm thesis—forcing students to adopt a side. The AP test also, unsurprisingly, rewards students who cite a wealth of supporting details. By the time I took the test in 2009, I was a master at “checking boxes,” weighing political factors equally against those involving socioeconomics and ensuring that previously neglected populations like women and ethnic minorities received their due. I did not know that I was pulling ideas from different historiographical traditions. I still subscribed to the idea of a prevailing national narrative and served as an unwitting sponsor of synthesis, oblivious to the academic battles that made such synthesis impossible.
Has the teaching of AP-USH degraded over time, or is it still merely dependent on the quality and dedication of the teachers themselves more than the tests? When I read this paragraph was, huh? I guess AP-USH has degraded over time if historiography isn’t being taught, and if some teachers are pushing testcraft over the craft of history, that’s too bad for their students. Thirty years ago, when I was an AP-USH student, historiography was the first, last, and always lesson that our teacher urged us to understand. We read a book then-popular (and apparently still published) that taught a variety of historical and historiographical controversies, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. (Another popular book that teaches some of the same lessons is the late Robin Winks’s The Historian as Detective, but I didn’t read that until college–and this is the exact edition that I probably still own.)
Conway’s analysis of his experience in AP-USH puzzled me. First, it’s a useful exercise to develop a strong thesis and defend it–it’s hardly succumbing to “one indistinct narrative” to do this. Secondly, what does he mean that he “pull[ed] ideas from different historiographical traditions,” and why does he think this is a transgression? Sure, it would be difficult (to reach for a timely example) to combine the Dunning School with the evidence and methods of W.E.B. DuBois, but that has more to do with political and ideological coherence than the Rules of History–whatever they are. If you really want to see historians’ fur fly, then try to get them to agree on the Rules of History! They make historiographical disputes look like a croquet match at a garden party.
Isn’t taking useful evidence and ideas where you find them just what working historians do all of the time? Or am I some kind of outlaw historian (Historiann!) who didn’t realize until just now that I’ve been coloring outside the lines my whole career (so far)?
There’s no such thing as bad evidence. There are only wrong interpretations of evidence (which give us bad history like the Dunning School), and learning of a piece of evidence or style of argumentation from a bad historian doesn’t contaminate that evidence or style for all time.
If nothing else, didn’t we all learn in our American History classes at that middle-school taunt that it’s a free country? As of tomorrow, I’m off to that country-within-a-country, Québec, to wrap up my research and find some photos and images to include in the book, so wish me bonne chance, if not adieu, as I will be posting again regularly next week. Á bientot, mes amis!