A School Divided: The Civil War Era in the Secondary Classroom

A School Divided: The Civil War Era in the Secondary Classroom

This May, roughly 500,000 high school juniors across the nation nervously sat in classrooms and gymnasiums for the Advanced Placement (AP) United States History exam.[1] The number of students enrolled in AP U.S. History courses increases every year, reorienting the US history survey from university campuses into secondary history classrooms.[2] Because many universities accept AP credits in place of the U.S. history survey, these students might never take a U.S. history course in college, and might not be directly exposed to academic historians’ rigorous scholarship and interpretations of the Civil War era. In the coming years, an increasing ratio of the instruction about the Civil War era will be shifted to AP instructors in the secondary classroom. Two recent news headlines—on the controversy over Mississippi’s Confederate Heritage Month and another tracing the outcry against the College Board’s redesigned AP U.S. History curriculum—serve as reminders that the presentation of the Civil War era is hotly contested in secondary classrooms. These recent events underscore how historians of the Civil War era have few opportunities to shape the presentation of the Civil War era in high schools—and even these are shrinking.

tudents sit for a standardized test. (Fabian Pittroff, The Atlantic). Found in: Laura McKenna, “What Happens When Students Boycott a Standardized Test?” The Atlantic, April 9, 2015, accessed July 15, 2016.
Students sit for a standardized test. (Fabian Pittroff, The Atlantic). Found in: Laura McKenna, “What Happens When Students Boycott a Standardized Test?” The Atlantic, April 9, 2015, accessed July 15, 2016.

In February, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant declared April 2016 as ‘Confederate Heritage Month.’ This is only the most recent example of a ritual perennially performed by governors of several Southern states, including my home state of Texas.[3] However, in the context of the post-Charleston national debate over the Confederate flag and other symbols of slavery and racism in Southern politics, Bryant’s pronouncement sparked fresh outrage.[4] Several aspects of the governor’s declaration made national headlines. First, the declaration came at the behest of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), an organization that denies the role of slavery in secession and claims that true story of the Civil War era is “consciously distorted by some in an attempt to alter history.”[5] Second, the declaration’s wording called on Mississippians to reflect on the “four-year struggle” of Mississippi confederates that began in April 1861, while carefully omitting any reference to slavery. Third, Bryant’s announcement came in February, Black History Month, and while the state legislature considered proposals to remove the Confederate battle flag symbol from Mississippi’s state flag.

Mississippi’s observation of Confederate Heritage Month put many of the state’s history teachers in an awkward position. Southern civil religion dictates that public schools are often required to formally observe such holidays with announcements over PA systems, addresses by administrators, or moments of silence during the school day.[6] These mandates distort the learning objectives for the Civil War era as defined the Mississippi Department of Education’s social studies curriculum, and force black students and teachers to commemorate Mississippi’s heritage of slavery and secession.[7] While the language of Bryant’s declaration included no formal requirement for classroom observance, Bryant’s implicit endorsement of the SCV’s stance on slavery and secession carried enough official weight to make any educator who is ideologically opposed to the SCV’s propaganda nervous. One U.S. History teacher in Mississippi argued that students and educators should not be led to celebrate Confederate heritage, because to do so would necessitate sidestepping the inextricable link between secession and white supremacy.[8] A Mississippi Studies teacher tellingly noted that his students struggle to understand that white Mississippians fought the Civil War in order to protect slavery, because the pro-Confederate heritage stance of the state government obscures the relationship between white supremacy and the Confederacy.[9]

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a proclamation declaring the month of April "Confederate Heritage Month" in his state. (Joe Ellis/The Clarion-Ledger via AP). Found in: “Mississippi Governor Declares April ‘Confederate Heritage Month,’” NOLA.com, February 25, 2016, accessed July 10, 2016.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a proclamation declaring the month of April “Confederate Heritage Month” in his state. (Joe Ellis/The Clarion-Ledger via AP). Found in: “Mississippi Governor Declares April ‘Confederate Heritage Month,’” NOLA.com, February 25, 2016, accessed July 10, 2016.

The pressure that the SCV and Gov. Bryant put on Mississippi’s secondary teachers to distort the presentation of the Civil War era, and the teachers’ protests, struck a chord for me. They reminded me of my own experiences as an AP U.S. History teacher at a public high school in McKinney, Texas. In both Mississippi and McKinney, the presentation of the Civil War era in secondary history classrooms is hotly contested, and is defined more by political pressure than by academic historians’ interpretations.

Like Mississippi, Texas has a troubling legacy of white supremacy, and the state often celebrates Confederate Heritage Month. McKinney, an affluent suburb just north of Dallas that was ranked as the “Best Place to Live in America” by Money Magazine in 2014, is not immune to Texas’ racial tension.[10] Last summer, McKinney made headlines when a white police officer was caught on video assaulting a black teenaged girl after a noisy pool party in an upscale neighborhood, my own neighborhood.[11] Despite being nationally recognized for academic excellence, McKinney’s public high schools are not above racial controversy. In 2014, U.S. News & World Report ranked my former school in the top three percent of high schools in the nation, and our top students are consistently admitted to Ivy League and other prestigious universities. In fact, the class of 2016 valedictorian, Larissa Martinez, made headlines last month for revealing, in her commencement address, that she was an undocumented immigrant.[12] Martinez, who will enter Yale University in the fall, was subjected to racist attacks on social media. Episodes like these remind us that high schools are politicized spaces where racial tension is present and the portrayal of history is contested.

The politicization of the Civil War era in the secondary history classroom became most clear to me during the 2014-2015 school year. That year, the College Board implemented a redesigned curriculum for AP U.S. History. The organization updated the end-of-year AP exam format to emphasize critical thinking and writing and revised the testable content for the AP exam to align with the most current historical interpretations. Against the backdrop of the 2014 election season, this redesign quickly became campaign fodder. The Republican National Committee condemned the new AP U.S. History standards as reflecting a “radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects,” including white supremacy.[13] Oklahoma’s state legislature considered defunding AP U.S. History because the new curriculum was a threat to “public peace, health, and safety.”[14] State legislators in Texas and Georgia promptly followed suit with similar efforts.[15] Dueling protestors even took the streets in Jefferson County, Colorado to support or decry a local school board member’s plan to alter the AP U.S. History curriculum in local high schools.[16] McKinney’s incumbent representative on the Texas State Board of Education, Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, made lambasting the AP U.S. History redesign a staple of her campaign platform; Miller was reelected.[17]

Students protest against a Jefferson County School Board proposal to censor the 2014 AP U.S. History curriculum (Thursday Sept. 24, 2014, AP). Found in: T. Keung Hui, NC Board of Education to hear AP US History controversy,” The News and Observer, Nov. 26, 2014, accessed July 15, 2016.
Students protest against a Jefferson County School Board proposal to censor the 2014 AP U.S. History curriculum (Thursday Sept. 24, 2014, AP). Found in: T. Keung Hui, NC Board of Education to hear AP US History controversy,” The News and Observer, Nov. 26, 2014, accessed July 15, 2016.

Like the SCV that stood behind Mississippi’s Confederate Heritage Month, critics of the redesigned AP U.S. History had academic historians’ interpretations of the Civil War era squarely in their sights. In my own classroom, one anxious parent cornered me at an open house, asking if she should be worried about academics indoctrinating her child through these new learning standards for the Civil War era. A student threatened to write the mayor and school board, demanding that I be censored for emphasizing the role of slavery in the coming of the Civil War, a standard in the new curriculum.[18] A group of students petitioned our school administrators to revise their course grades upward, claiming that my interpretation of this history was biased against their own views about the era. Another student angrily informed me that teachers should not allow history to be debated by students in class; instead the Civil War era should simply be “taught” in order to sidestep discussion of institutional racism. My experience was not isolated. Enough anger and political pressure eventually mounted against the redesigned curriculum that the College Board relented to AP U.S. History’s critics and revised the course framework again in 2015, this time softening the language used to describe slavery as a cause of the Civil War and racism in its aftermath.[19]

How the history of the Civil War era is presented in textbooks, taught in classes, and assessed is highly contested in secondary education. While academic historians emphasize slavery as the cause of the Civil War and recognize institutionalized racism and violence in the war’s aftermath, that long-ago settled consensus on slavery as a cause of the war continues to be openly and fiercely attacked in education policy and local legislation.[20] This often causes conflict in and around secondary classrooms in states like Mississippi and Texas. High school history classrooms are politicized spaces where groups like the SCV and opponents of AP U.S. History actively, and successfully, lobby in favor of ahistorical portrayals of the Civil War era. This trend is especially alarming when we realize that the AP U.S. History program is redistributing the teaching of the Civil War era from universities to high schools and that many college-bound students will never be exposed to academic historians’ teaching on the period. Ensuring that revised textbooks and open-access learning resources are in secondary history teachers’ hands can only ameliorate this situation so far.[21] As a discipline, historians need to forcefully argue in favor of public education policy that stresses a rigorous, critical interpretation of the Civil War era. Without active intervention, the Civil War era that many students will learn about in years to come may look very different one than the one we teach now.

 

[1] “2016 AP Exam Score Distributions,” Totalregistration.net, June 24, 2016, accessed July 10, 2016. http://www.totalregistration.net/AP-Exam-Registration-Service/2016-AP-Exam-Score-Distributions.php.

[2] For a description of the AP U.S. History course and exam, see: “Course Overview,” AP United States History – Students – AP Courses – The College Board, accessed July 14, 2016, https://apstudent.collegeboard.org/apcourse/ap-united-states-history. For national AP enrollment in all subjects over time, see: “10 Years of Advanced Placement Exam Data Show Significant Gains in Access and Success; Areas for Improvement,” The College Board, February 11, 2014, accessed July 11, 2016 https://www.collegeboard.org/releases/2014/class-2013-advanced-placement-results-announced. For the Fall 2014 curriculum framework, see AP United States History Course and Exam Description Including the Curriculum Framework, Effective Fall 2014 (New York: College Board, 2014). Note that as of July 2016, the College Board has removed the Fall 2014 curriculum framework from the AP U.S. History course webpage. I will circulate it by request. For the Fall 2015 curriculum framework, see AP United States History Course and Exam Description Including the Curriculum Framework, Updated Fall 2015 (New York: College Board, 2015), accessed July 12, 2016, https://secure-media.collegeboard.org/digitalServices/pdf/ap/ap-us-history-course-and-exam-description.pdf.

[3] Donna Ladd, “Mississippi Governor Declares April ‘Confederate Heritage Month,’ No Slavery Mention,” Jacksonfreepress.com, February 24, 2016, accessed July 09, 2016, http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2016/feb/24/mississippi-governor-declares-april-confederate-hi/. See also “Mississippi Governor Declares April ‘Confederate Heritage Month,’” NOLA.com, February 25, 2016, accessed July 10, 2016, http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/02/mississippi_governor_declares.html; and Steve Almasy, “Mississippi Governor Defends Confederate Heritage Month Proclamation,” CNN, February 25, 2016, accessed July 10, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/25/politics/mississippi-confederate-heritage-month/.

For Gov. Bryant’s declaration, see: “Gov. Bryant Proclaims April ‘Confederate Heritage Month,” April 24, 2016, accessed July 11, 2016, http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/documents/2016/feb/24/gov-bryant-proclaims-april-confederate-history-mon/. For earlier examples of Confederate Heritage Month, see Dahleen Glanton, “Southerners Share Confederate History,” Chicagotribune.com, March 22, 2009, accessed July 10, 2016, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2009-03-22/news/0903210133_1_confederate-flag-confederate-history-month-sons-of-confederate-veterans.

[4] Melissa Batchelor Warnke, “Controversy Continues as Confederate History Month Comes to a Close,” U.S. News & World Report, April 29, 2016, accessed July 10, 2016, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-04-29/confederate-heritage-month-in-mississippi-sparks-controversy.

[5] “Members Information,” Mississippi Division Sons of Confederate Veterans, accessed July 11, 2016, http://www.mississippiscv.org/member-info.

[6] Adam Gamoran, “Civil Religion in American Schools,” Sociological Analysis 51, no. 3 (1990): 235-256.

[7] Mississippi Department of Education, “2011 Mississippi Social Studies Framework,” November 19, 2010, accessed July 11, 2016, http://www.mde.k12.ms.us/docs/curriculum-and-instructions-library/2011-mississsippi-social-studies-framework.pdf?sfvrsn=4. See competencies and objectives for: Eighth Grade United States History from Exploration Through Reconstruction, Domestic Affairs, 2, d.

[8] Timothy Abram, “Editorial: Why I Can’t Celebrate ‘Confederate Heritage Month,’” NBC News, February 28, 2016, accessed July 11, 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/editorial-why-i-can-t-celebrate-confederate-heritage-month-n526246.

[9] Casey Quinlan, “What Mississippi Educators Are Telling Students About State Sanctioned Confederate Heritage Month,” Thinkprogress.org, March 21, 2016, accessed July 09, 2016. http://thinkprogress.org/education/2016/03/21/3761030/confederate-heritage-month/.

[10] “#1 Best Place to Live,” McKinney, TX – Official Website, accessed July 11, 2016, https://www.mckinneytexas.org/1017/1-Best-Place-to-Live. See also Olga Khan, “The Dark Side of McKinney, the ‘Best Place to Live in America,’” The Atlantic, June 9, 2015, accessed July 11, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/the-dark-side-of-mckinney-the-best-place-to-live-in-america/395372/.

[11] Dorothy A. Brown, “McKinney Pool Party Incident Was about Race,” CNN, June 9, 2015, accessed July 12, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/09/opinions/brown-mckinney-pool-party/.

[12] Jobin Panicker, “High School Valedictorian Reveals Undocumented Status in Speech,” WFAA, June 9, 2016, accessed July 12, 2016, http://www.wfaa.com/news/local/education/high-school-valedictorian-reveals-undocumented-status-in-speech/237807524.

[13] “Resolution Concerning Advanced Placement U. S. History (APUSH),” Republican National Committee Counsel’s Office, August 8, 2014, accessed June 11, 2016, https://cdn.gop.com/docs/RESOLUTION_CONCERNING_ADVANCED_PLACEMENT_US_HISTORY_APUSH.pdf. See also Adam B Lerner, “History Class Becomes a Debate on America,” Politico. February 21, 2015, accessed July 12, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/02/ap-us-history-controversy-becomes-a-debate-on-america-115381.

[14] Colleen Flaherty, “Oklahoma Legislature Targets AP US History Framework for Being ‘negative,’” Inside Higher Ed, February 23, 2016, accessed July 12, 2016, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/02/23/oklahoma-legislature-targets-ap-us-history-framework-being-negative.

[15] For Texas, see: Michele Richinick, “Texas Moves to Veto AP History Course,” Msnbc.com, September 19, 2014, accessed July 11, 2016, http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/texas-moves-veto-ap-history-course. For Georgia, see Kristina Torress, “Senate Targets AP History Courses as Too ‘radically Revisionist,’” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 11, 2015, accessed July 12, 2016, http://www.ajc.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/senate-targets-ap-history-courses-as-too-radically/nkSrm/.

[16] Jenny Brundin, “After Protests Over History Curriculum, School Board Tries To Compromise,” NPR, October 3, 2014, accessed July 12, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2014/10/03/353327302/school-board-wants-civil-disorder-deemphasized-students-walk-out. See also Alan Gionet, “Months After Protests, Jeffco Board Scraps AP US History Curriculum Review,” CBS Denver, February 19, 2015, accessed July 12, 2016, http://denver.cbslocal.com/2015/02/19/months-after-protests-jeffco-board-scraps-ap-us-history-curriculum-review/.

[17] Tincy Miller, “SBOE’s Tincy Miller Says APUSH Is a Fight for the Soul of America,” TexasInsider.org, September 19, 2014, accessed July 18, 2016, http://www.texasinsider.org/sboes-tincy-miller-says-apush-is-a-fight-for-the-soul-of-america/. See also “Biased Statements In the AP U.S. History Redesign,” TincyMiller.com, August 26, 2014, accessed July 18, 2016, http://tincymiller.com/biased-statements-in-the-ap-u-s-history-redesign.html. For Miller’s bio, see “SBOE Member District 12,” Texas Education Agency, accessed July 18, 2016, http://tea.texas.gov/index2.aspx?id=3721.

[18] AP United States History Course and Exam Description Including the Curriculum Framework Effective Fall 2014. For the 2014 curriculum framework, see Key Concept 5.2.I.C: “States’ rights, nullification, and racist stereotyping provided the foundation for the Southern defense of slavery as a positive good.”; Key concept 5.3.II: “The Civil War and Reconstruction altered power relationships between the states and the federal government and among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, ending slavery and the notion of a divisible union but leaving unresolved questions of relative power and largely unchanged social and economic patterns.”; Key concept 5.3.III.A: “Although citizenship, equal protection of the laws, and voting rights were granted to African Americans in the 14th and 15th Amendments, these rights were progressively stripped away through segregation, violence, Supreme Court decisions, and local political tactics.”

[19] For example, the 2014 curriculum framework’s Key Concept 5.2.I.C reads: “States’ rights, nullification, and racist stereotyping provided the foundation for the Southern defense of slavery as a positive good.” (Emphasis my own). The 2015’s curriculum framework’s Key Concept 5.2.I.C reads: “Defenders of slavery based their arguments on racial doctrines, the view that slavery was a positive social good, and the belief that slavery and states’ rights were protected by the Constitution.” (Emphasis my own). The 2014 curriculum framework’s Key Concept 5.3.III.A reads: “Although citizenship, equal protection of the laws, and voting rights were granted to African Americans in the 14th and 15th Amendments, these rights were progressively stripped away through segregation, violence, Supreme Court decisions, and local political tactics.” The language in 2015 curriculum framework’s Key Concept 5.3.II.E has a more uplifting tone: “Segregation, violence, Supreme Court decisions, and local political tactics progressively stripped away African American rights, but the 14th and 15th amendments eventually became the basis for court decisions upholding civil rights in the 20th century.” (Emphasis my own). See also Anya Kamenetz, “The New, New Framework For AP U.S. History,” NPR, August 5, 2015, accessed July 12, 2016, http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/08/05/429361628/the-new-new-framework-for-ap-u-s-history. See also Zoe Schlanger, “Revised AP U.S. History Standards Will Emphasize American Exceptionalism,” Newsweek, July 29, 2015, accessed July 12, 2016, http://www.newsweek.com/revised-ap-history-standards-will-emphasize-american-exceptionalism-358210.

[20] See Adam Rothman, “Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction,” in American History Now, ed. Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011): 75-95; Stephen Berry, “The Future of Civil War Era Studies,” Journal of Civil War Era 2, no. 1 (March 2012), http://journalofthecivilwarera.org/forum-the-future-of-civil-war-era- studies/; Eric Foner, “Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction,” in New American History. ed. Eric Foner (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990): 73-92.

[21] Examples of textbooks commonly used for AP U.S. History courses that have been revised to meet the 2014 and 2015 curriculum frameworks can be found at: http://www.collegeboard.com/html/apcourseaudit/courses/us_history_textbook_list.html. The Gilder Lehrman Institute’s of American History’s AP U.S. History modules are an excellent example of open access instructional materials ready-made for classroom instruction. This resource can be found at http://ap.gilderlehrman.org.

Jonathan Jones

Jonathan Jones is a PhD student at Binghamton University (SUNY). His research and teaching interests include the Civil War era and the history of American medicine. He is a former secondary history teacher, who maintains active involvement with the College Board’s AP U.S. History program. He can be reached at jjones19@binghamton.edu.

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