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.