Mischievous Masquerade: APUSH as the Sought Coherent Framework Justifying Intervention in History

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Before I explain why I have decided to join the current discussion surrounding the remake of the AP US History (“APUSH”) course, let’s remember that most people who have ever sought fundamental transformations of the real world as it currently exists think of history as a consciousness altering tool. We will never get back to the “grand narrative supported by well-known documents, events, and historical personae” many of us long for unless we recognize this political pursuit of history. That history as a body of knowledge, even one dominated by Leftist figures and radical ideas, is Ahistorical to anyone who looks now at all coursework, in all subjects, in K-12 or higher ed, as determined by “the kind of society and world we would like to bring about as the United States enters its third century.”

R. Freeman Butts

R. Freeman Butts

That quote is from a 1988 paper by the same Freeman Butts I wrote about in my book describing all the transformative shifts obscured within the term Competency. We cannot then be surprised that Butts also saw the Teaching of History as a means for creating a new kind of citizen. One who will believe fervently in, and be ready to act, to bring about Democracy in the sense of Economic Justice. The original advocate for this view of history though as a Framework for creating change in the here and now was actually not Uncle Karl. Luckily there is no buzzer in this post so no one loses points for a wrong guess.

Let’s meet an 18th century man from the Naples area of Italy-Giambattista Vico. He matters so much to anyone writing about education as a means of social change because Vico believed that the means of transforming the real world of social relations, institutions, and everyday life lay in “modifying” how our human minds see that world. Change the mental concepts and a process begins, Radicals hope, whereby one “historical structure succeeds another.” That’s real history to someone intent on transformational change. So with the push for conscious evolution, or requiring a common understanding as the Rockefeller-funded Communication for Social Change or the Structured Dialogue Design do, we are back to Vico’s view:

“Mind is, however, the thread connecting the present with the past, a means of access to a knowledge of these changing modes of social reality. Human nature ( the modifications of mind) and human institutions are identical with human history.”

Change how the mind perceives the past and the theory then is we can change human nature itself. I think that’s a bad bet, which is why I interjected myself into the APUSH discussion. Continuing to discuss any AP course or any other coursework for any age being touted as the Common Core, Next Generation Learning, 21st Century Skills or Competency as if we are still talking about conveying a body of knowledge is a mistake with potentially tragic consequences since we are literally talking about social engineering. This past Monday there was once again a hearing in Georgia on the Federal Role In Education. It was conducted with a level of conscious deceit that would have been right at home at the Trotsky Trial. In the midst of all the lies though, there was consistent and accurate testimony across witnesses about one thing: concepts.

Knowledge to the extent its still exists under the Common Core is about concepts. We have encountered this before as the Enduring Understandings or Ilyenkov’s Ascending from the Abstract to the Concrete. Concepts that can be used within and across subjects to guide how a student and later the adult he will become will perceive everyday experiences. Guess who it goes back to? Now you do long for a buzzer to press, don’t you? Yes, “Vico’s project, which we would now call social science, was to arrive at a ‘mental dictionary,’ or set of common concepts, with which one is able to comprehend the process of ‘ideal eternal history.’”

Well, it’s ideal if Transformative Social Change is the name of your game. In the real world, deliberately trying to mentally engineer how the masses view the existing world has a terrible, bloody track record. Since controlling history is now seen as just another tool to create a desired Worldview, those objectionable, bloody parts will be omitted just as surely as anything that might foster pride in the world as it currently exists. Years ago, I first encountered this idea of teaching history through broad concepts instead of facts when I encountered the new AP World History framework that was full of hatred for capitalism and the environmental destruction it supposedly caused. It literally treated the term Communism as an “international means of structuring economic relations.” Talk about a whitewash. That Framework was supposed to go into effect first, then APUSH.

Retired professor William H. McNeill receives a 2009 National Humanities Medal from President Obama

Retired professor William H. McNeill receives a 2009 National Humanities Medal from President Obama

In looking into the history of that Framework I discovered that what all the participants in its planning had in common was a reverence for the work of historian William H. McNeill. Now President Obama appreciates his work as well as we can see from this smile as he hands the professor the 2009 National Humanities medal. McNeill sees history as the “search for a normative matrix connecting the world in its totality” and built around “the idea of gradual progress.” The progress, by the way, once again supposedly heads towards Economic Justice.

When I read Stanley Kurtz’s article this past week “How the College Board Politicized US History” and he wrote about the 1998 La Pietra Conference, two things jumped out at me. One, that Thomas Bender was clearly seeing history through the same conceptual lens as William McNeill and that I should look into that. Secondly, that La Pietra should be seen as a continuation of everything I knew about the still extant World Order Models Project.

The Giambattista Vico discussion is from a 1984 book tied to WOMP called Culture, Ideology, and World Order. It basically is the global blueprint for all the changes that have come in as education reform and in the name of Sustainability, except there it is acknowledged to be a New World Order intent on making sure the poor of the world anywhere get their fair share. Nary a concern at all about temperatures or carbon dioxide levels. That’s a book that recognized that fundamental transformations need a “common conceptual paradigm or vision” as well as “a coherent framework of intervention in the historical process” and set about to provide it.

That’s how APUSH as well as the La Pietra conference should be seen. Needless to say, it was no surprise to me to discover that the Rockefeller Foundation had also helped to fund La Pietra. Just another way to influence the prevailing common understanding of the masses, just like WOMP, CFSC-Communication for Social Change, Metropolitanism, or its deliberative democracy funding. Useful ties all for grounding APUSH into other components of a common transformative vision, as is that Freeman Butts piece I linked to above on how to use history “to reclaim the public realm, where groups interact to make a national politics and culture, as the central territory of history.” Using history then to change prevailing conceptions to create support for new ways of living together and organizing the society and economy politically.

That turned out to be how McNeill, Butts, and Thomas Bender all saw history back in the mid-80s. History should be about creating a “commitment to deeply held humane values.” As McNeill put it, “Better than any discipline, history can defend shared, public identities.” Those identities of ordinary citizens are public because they have been deeply grounded in achieving “the positive ends of a society dedicated to ‘liberty and justice for all.’” As Bender noted in 1985, “public life” is crucial because it is “that essentially civic arena where groups interact, even compete, to establish the configuration of political power in a society and its cultural forms and their meanings.”

That philosophy of history as a handmaiden to contemporary change just cannot cohabit with a view of education or history as the transmission of a body of knowledge. It might nurture a nostalgia for the past that could become a barrier to a transition to a new kind of citizenship in a different kind of democracy. As Butts noted, quoting the 1987 New York State Social Studies Framework: “The principles of a democratic system should serve as organizing ideas for the social studies program and for student learning. The development of civic values consistent with life in a democratic system is an overriding goal of the entire program.”

That’s not a goal that can be met if students become acquainted with what the American Revolution really sought to achieve. Given that the CCSSO last year emphasized the necessary Dispositions for Citizenship and Citizenship is the 3rd C of the Social Studies C3 Framework, Butts’ idea that the “morality of citizenship should be the central theme” of all K-12 coursework clearly remains alive and well. Any analysis now needs to remember what was said and sought back in the 80s too since these admissions were made before School to Work and outcomes-based education ran into controversy in the 90s.

Let’s close this intro to a transformational view of history with what Bender wrote in 1986:

“The present task is to begin establishing the relationship over time of the interclass, multiethnic, and multicultural center, which I call public culture, and the smaller, more homogenous gemeinschaftlich groups of the periphery…A focus on public culture and its changing connections with cultures smaller than the whole offers an image of society capacious enough to sustain a synthetic narrative.”

Synthetic narrative is fancy Profspeak for a common transformative vision of what the future ought to be and why. It’s not a Franklin or George Washington view of history, but Vico and Uncle Karl would be pleased.