Vail Daily column: Be wary of local control over U.S. History curriculum |

Vail Daily column: Be wary of local control over U.S. History curriculum

Jack Van Ens

Tea party activists argue that local school boards possess expertise to shape a U.S. history curriculum that meets community expectations. Conservatives oppose the national Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum. They caricature it as a federal take-over of education. Conservatives wrongly assert that the AP U.S. history curriculum imposes limits on the local control of schools. Repeat such a lie long enough and it gains credibility.

Local school boards that reject the national AP history curriculum propose an unsalvageable argument. Its fallacies sink it.

In the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson exposed these errors. When he proposed a comprehensive plan for public education, conservatives denounced it as too expensive. They huffed that Jefferson’s educational plan robbed communities of local control. Sound familiar?

As a young legislator, Jefferson disagreed with conservatives who declared the best education occurs locally. Many plantation owners set-up private schools for their male children. They hired a local clergy to mentor five or six boys, either in his study or on plantations. Lacking government school standards, land owners sponsored a pro-slavery curriculum. It prohibited slaves from acquiring reading and writing skills. White oppressors feared that literate slaves would effectively communicate and engineer rebellious plots against their masters.

This bias toward local control surfaces today among conservatives whose irrational fears make them dead-set against a national AP U.S. history curriculum.

Jefferson required a broad educational plan beyond local control. As part of his initiative to revise and simplify Virginia’s archaic laws, he designed a comprehensive educational pyramid. Primary schools would be established on ward (town) level, with counties operating secondary schools. Jefferson pressed for a secular university founded at the state level. Conservatives shot down this plan because they didn’t want to sacrifice local control over what was taught on plantations.

In 1817, Jefferson and colleague James Madison declared that the Republic wouldn’t flourish without an expanding literate middle-class. Their Virginia Plan provided free white children with three years of primary education. State legislators, whose top priority was lower taxes, rejected the Plan.

This bias toward local control surfaces today among conservatives whose irrational fears make them dead-set against a national AP U.S. history curriculum. Opinion writer Catherine Rampell in “The Bizarre War against AP U.S. History Courses,” exposes conservatives’ ridiculous hysteria against the government’s educational mandates for local school districts.

“Some (conservative) legislators seem convinced that the educational standards set by the Common Core and AP and IB tests are manifestation of federal tyranny — an odd concern, given that a) none of these curricula was developed by the feds (Common Core was a state-led effort, and AP and IB programs are overseen by independent nonprofits), and b) none of these curricula has actually been mandated by the federal government.

“AP and Common Core standards also give teachers and schools quite a bit of discretion in what they teach, setting broad critical-thinking goals rather than providing a concrete syllabus, textbook or packet of lesson plans. If an AP U.S. history teacher wants to highlight the heroism of our Founding Fathers, he very much can” (The Washington Post, Feb. 19).

Local control of the AP U.S. history curriculum is based on irrational fears that the federal government’s educational requirements encroach on states-rights and local control. Conservative political ideology drives educational agenda, similar to plantation owners’ politics ruining Jefferson’s educational initiative.

Moreover, a second problem occurs when conservatives teach U.S. history from an exclusively capitalistic slant of America’s economic successes. Oklahoma’s Republican representative Dan Fisher introduced a bill in February that banned Advanced Placement U.S. history courses. Why? Because students are exposed to “what is bad about America” and are duped into believing that our free country is a “nation of oppressors and exploiters.” Rep. Fisher wants students to study free enterprise which, he alleges, motivates companies to employ thousands, increases middle class income and gives creature-comforts to citizens. No cautions, however, against monopolies that drive up prices, enslave workers and rob laborers of personal freedoms, such as the right to vote.

Overlooked is the history of cotton capitalists who disenfranchised African-Americans. “(In the early 19th century) there appeared a movement to roll back the enfranchisement of black men, so as to identify the suffrage clearly with white manhood. Black males lost the right to vote in Connecticut 1818, in Rhode Island in 1822, in North Carolina in 1835, and in Pennsylvania in 1838. When New York removed its property qualifications for white voters in 1821, it retained one for blacks. Of the states admitted after 1819, every one but Maine disenfranchised African-Americans. The United States was well on its way to becoming a ‘white republic’” (What Hath God Wrought, Daniel Walker Howe).

What’s the danger of reading history with economic winners the main players? The Nazis slanted German history to say whatever their anti-Semitic political agenda demanded. Economic winners decided what Nazi history to record and study. Conservatives’ interests are riveted to free enterprise. They substitute this historical reading for a balanced AP curriculum. Picture how conservatives handle history by putting pressure on a balloon’s skin, so that it bulges to the breaking point. Conservatives teach an out-of-whack U.S. economic history.

Such defective dynamics riddle high school studies if conservatives get their way with local control over AP U.S. history curriculum.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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