My hands are shaking as I write. A tangible expression of the mixture of emotions that have been stirred up inside my head and my heart. I am filled with disbelief, shock, and a feeling of anxiety as I think about the future of education for our children in this country. I am thinking about my own two boys, who, while still young, will one day find themselves sitting in a classroom somewhere here in Oklahoma City. I wonder, what will (or won’t) they be learning?
Perhaps you have seen the news, a new bill has been introduced in the Oklahoma legislature that would bar the distribution of state funding for Advanced Placement United States History courses in public schools throughout Oklahoma. When I first saw that this was actually a real bill, not something contrived by some sort of satirical website, my first reaction was, “What??? Well, there is no way that will go anywhere….” Well, I was wrong. On Monday a legislative committee voted overwhelmingly to approve the bill and pass it on along through the system.
Oy, where to even begin? Do we discuss the vocal minority that continues to align themselves against education, intellectualism, and all things critical thinking? Do we discuss similar measures that have been introduced in Colorado, Georgia, and North Carolina? Do we discuss the underlining reasoning and justification behind the sponsor of the current bill here in the beautiful and wonderful state of Oklahoma (note the absence of sarcasm, I love my new home)? Do we evaluate the merits of discussing (and promoting) the ideal of “American Exceptionalism?”
In addition to being a minister, I also possess an undergraduate degree in history and I am certified to teach high school social studies, so what is going on here in Oklahoma hits incredibly close to home for me. So let’s talk about history.
Ever since I was a little kid, I have been captivated by the stories and events that have shaped this country of ours. I found (and still find) all history fascinating, but the stories of the American Civil War have always been near the top of my interest list. In 5th grade, I read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for fun. In my bedroom at my parent’s home I had hanging on my walls an American AND a Confederate Battle Flag. I have been to the battlefields of Fredricksburg and Gettysburg (where there is video of me as a middle school student recounting every detail of the battle of Little Round Top to other tourists) and I had a buddy with whom I would paint miniature soldiers and “war game” with on the weekends where there was no baseball. I have always been a history geek.
It was not until much later that I started to understand why I found history so awesome and so important. At first, it was just cool, and something that not too many other kids were in to. But in college, in the double wide trailers of the history department of Northwest Missouri State University, thanks to the wonderful professors that grace that department, I learned why history matters. History matters because it tells a story, and above almost everything else, stories matter. There is a placard that hangs in my office that declares to all who come in to chat, “Your Story Matters.” Stories matter because they are the only way through which we can come to understand another person. Stories allow us to gain a sense of motivation, purpose, and they allow us to find an answer to the question, “why?” But here’s the thing about stories, ultimately they bring the truth to light, and sometimes the truth is not always pretty. And just as this is true for individuals, so it is true for these United States of America.
And therein lies the crux of what is happening here in our state capitol. The sponsor of the bill, whom I will not name as that information is readily accessible, is promoting eliminating Advanced Placement American History because it only teaches students “What’s bad about America.” What this sponsor (and evidently entire legislative committees) believes is that it is only fitting and proper to teach “American Exceptionalism” and by doing so, the only way to teach America’s history is to blot out all the “bad” stuff. You know, things like slavery, the slaughter and forced deportation of the native tribes, the Japanese internment camps, things like that. But here’s the thing, one can still subscribe to the notion of American Exceptionalism while still acknowledging that we’ve screwed up a few times. Just like with individuals, so it is true for us as a nation, the only way we learn from our screw ups is by acknowledging them.
And I think, at the end of the day, it is this point that bothers me the most about what is going on. If we, as a state, and dare I say, as a nation, cease in acknowledging our screw ups as a nation, what we are doing is teaching our students that they no longer can (or need to) claim the fullness of their own stories. We are teaching them to blot out the bad and to own a narrative that they can do no wrong.
As a parent and as a youth minister, I of course want my children and my students to learn that they are, in fact, “exceptional,” but I also want them to be able to own their mistakes, learn from them, and seek to do better when the next opportunity arises. The same is true as an American. I want to celebrate and give thanks for all the good that this country has done for it’s own people and the global community, but I also pray that we can acknowledge our spotted past, continue to be repentant of it, and seek to to better in the next opportunity. This is only possible if we teach ALL of our history, and not just the glossy, sexy parts of it.
I am hopeful that this bill, and ones similar to it in Oklahoma and beyond, fade into the darkness, but no matter the outcome, my two boys have a history geek for a father, and they will learn our history, so that when they are the decision makers of the world, they will be fully equipped to do good in the world.