Jonathan Edwards didn’t know of Oklahoma. The word wasn’t even coined until 108 years after he was dead. But do Oklahomans know Jonathan Edwards?
The question is surprisingly controversial at the moment.
A Republican Oklahoma state representative named Dan Fisher, who is also pastor of a Baptist megachurch, has proposed a bill that would defund the teaching of Advanced Placement United States History courses in Oklahoma high schools. AP classes are taught to about 500,000 high school students every year in the US, putting them on the fast track to college education. The AP guidelines for teaching US history was revised in 2014 and Fisher, like many of conservatives, is critical of the new framework.
“Under the new framework, the emphasis of instruction is on America as a nation of oppressors and exploiters,” Fisher said. “Now certainly we all know that we have our blemishes, and we wouldn’t want to withhold those. But we don’t want only our blemishes taught and not have a balanced approach.”
Fisher says the biggest problem with the new curriculum is what is left out: “the heroes from American history are pretty much omitted.”
One of those heroes, according to Oklahoma House Bill 1380, is Jonathan Edwards. Fisher is afraid Edward, along with others, is being kept out of the US history classroom. The legislation would require that Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” be taught to advanced high school students, along with two other Puritan texts, John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and the Mayflower compact.
Fisher’s proposal was passed last week by the Oklahoma house’s education committee with an 11-4 vote on party lines. The news was met with considerable scorn and outrage. Many on the left see this bill as an example of the American right’s head-in-the-sand anti-intellectualism. Conservatives, it is alleged, can’t handle the truth of American history. They want a of national ideology to overwrite the complexities of what actually happened.
Michael Hiltzik, writing for the L.A. Times, says that “For the right wing, historical truth matters for naught; what’s important is the ideological narrative, and if it fails to match their vision of an America shining the light of freedom and plenty on the world.”
“Oh, that pesky history of ours,” writes John D. Sutter, a CNN columnist, mocking Fisher and his cohort. “Why not just take a big ole’ eraser to it?”
At the Guardian, Stephen W. Thrasher says that this is a perversion of education to political ends. “Holding our children’s futures hostage by refusing them the opportunity to learn both the good and the bad is simply an effort to secure future votes,” Trasher writes, “not help children learn.”
That’s a pretty cynical interpretation of Fisher’s bill. While these are cynical times, there’s nothing in the text of HB 1380 that supports the idea that Oklahoma Republicans would require high school teachers to leave some facts out of their education plans. There’s nothing in the bill that says teachers have to teach America’s greatness without including any voices critical of that national narrative. There’s nothing that says the goal of education should be instilling students with a belief in American exceptionalism.
If you actually read Fisher’s piece of legislation, it proposes that advanced placement history curricula in the state “shall include as part of the primary instruction” documents related to America’s founding. These are, in the main, defined quite broadly. The bill mentions “organic documents from the pre-Colonial, Colonial, Revolutionary, Federalist and post-Federalist eras,” and “United States Supreme Court decisions.” Where it gets more specific, the bill proposes requiring high school teachers to teach a varied list of historical texts in their advanced classes. Some of these certainly articulate conservative visions of America’s special place in the world, but not all. There are three Ronald Reagan speeches on the list, but two by Lyndon B. Johnson. This proposal would require students study women’s-rights activist Elisabeth Cady Stanton and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, John Steinbeck’s class warfare novel Grapes of Wrath and even the words of the black nationalist Malcolm X.
It’s silly to say this legislation would forbid the teaching of America’s dirty, conflicted and complicated past. While Fisher no doubt wants to reject a narrative where America is a “nation of oppressors and exploiters,” he has not proposed a curriculum that would suppress all accounts of oppression and exploitation.
If you read the bill, that’s just not what it says.
Of course, it’s not just Fisher’s critics who seem to struggle with basic reading comprehension. Fisher himself seems to wildly misunderstand the AP classes he’s criticizing. The AP framework doesn’t get into a debate about emphasizing or de-emphasizing “blemishes”; it doesn’t take a position on whether America is a force of oppression in the world or a city on a hill. It isn’t simply political. Instead, the guidelines for the advanced classes say the classes are to teach students how to wrestle with conceptual understandings of American history. The curriculum framework says “students should learn to use historical facts and evidence to achieve deeper conceptual understandings of major developments in U.S. history.”
The first part of this is the development of historical thinking skills. The skills are listed: chronological reasoning, comparing and contextualizing, crafting historical arguments using historical evidence, and interpreting and synthesizing historical narratives.
Something like “contextualizing” can, of course, be political. Historian Andrew Hartman writes that some of the influential historians who have advocated for transnational contextualization of history have had political motivations. In the “longstanding disciplinary efforts to place the American past in a transnational context,” Hartman writes, some have been “quite explicit that such an approach might soften how the nation projects its power to the rest of the world.” They believed that approach to history would have political ramifications. “An international perspective,” they thought, “would be a cure for an increasingly outmoded nationalist perspective.”
Most historians are more circumspect about the political potential of historiography. A more immediate and tangible reason to “internationalize” American history is that it provides perspective.
The Jonathan Edwards Center Germany is an example of this: One of the center’s objectives is to put Edwards in a transatlantic context. Prof. Jan Stievermann, the center’s director, has studied German Protestant receptions of Jonathan Edwards, looking at how the Puritan project was understood by its continental contemporaries. Others, including Prof. Peter J. Thuesen, of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who gave the keynote address at the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany’s inauguration, have studied how Edwards was influenced by Europeans. Edwards is best thought of, Thuesen said, in a “complex web of connections linking him to the British Isles and Continental Europe — connections involving economic, political, cultural, and intellectual life.”
It seems unlikely that these contextualizations would make anyone more or less conservative. They’re certainly not committed to getting anyone to love America more — or less. The focus, pretty simply, is on improving the understanding of Jonathan Edwards by doing the work that historians do. Fisher seems to think the AP framework, which focuses on teaching skills like contextualization, is incompatible with teaching texts like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” At least as the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany approaches it, this just isn’t true.
The second part of developing students’ “conceptual understanding” of American history, as outlined by the AP framework, involves organizing American history around big themes. The framework lists seven themes, which are quite broad. One is “Ideas, beliefs, and culture.” Another is “American in the world.”
A conservative might interpret some of these as politically objectionable. One is “Identity” and, according to the framework, that theme pays “special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities.” The first three segments of the Identity section, however, are given to very traditional debates about America’s national identity at the context of the founding and the new republic, the context of territorial expansion and Manifest Destiny, and the context of America’s involvement in two World Wars and the Cold War. Another section focuses on “economic, political, social, and ethnic factors on the formation of regional identities.” Another, migration and assimilation. This is hardly a leftist curriculum; there’s nothing honestly controversial here.
Making honest arguments, incidentally, is one of the skills the AP classes are designed to teach: “Based on their analysis of historical evidence,” the framework reads, “students should then be able to make supportable inferences or draw appropriate conclusions. AP teachers can expose students to a variety of sources to help them draw their own conclusions and inferences.”
To do this, AP teachers assume their advanced students come with a basic knowledge of American history. This seems to be Fisher’s biggest misunderstanding of the courses’ he has proposed to defund. There are not basic classes. These are not classes that every student has to have in order to graduate. They are classes for advanced students who know a little something about America’s history and are ready to be challenged to ask the kinds of critical questions that Fisher himself is trying to ask: How were these narratives constructed? What political influences were involved? How do different focuses change the narratives?
This was a point that several high school teachers who teach these AP history classes in the state have made.
“My job is to help students view multiple perspectives and evaluate what are the merits of each,” Matt Holtzen, an AP history teacher at Enid High School in Enid, Oklahoma, told Newsweek.
Janet Thomas, who teaches AP history at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa told the Tulsa World the new framework “requires a lot more critical thinking skills than the old test did …. It’s not just memorization of facts and dates. It allows students the opportunity to compare things across times in history and think critically about why certain things happened.”
If the framework doesn’t mention specific texts that Fisher wants to make sure are taught, that may be because they’re obvious to high school history teachers, according to Eugene Earsom, who taught in Oklahoma for 20 years before becoming the state’s Department of Education’s director of the social studies curriculum for seven years. Asked about Fisher’s proposal that advanced classes be required to teach John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards and a list of other canonical history texts, Earsom said, “I don’t know of any history teacher who is worth his or her salt that doesn’t teach all of these already.” Edwards might not be taught in the advanced history classes, but that’s because his most famous sermon has already been taught Oklahoma’s high schoolers.
The political question remains open in Oklahoma, as Fisher’s bill is currently being revised, following the backlash. The controversy has already answered another question, though: Oklahomans do know Jonathan Edwards.
— Daniel Silliman