An Oklahoma legislative committee overwhelmingly voted to ban Advanced Placement U.S. History class, persuaded by the argument that it only teaches students “what is bad about America.” Other lawmakers are seeking a court ruling that would effectively prohibit the teaching of all AP courses in public schools.
This is the latest in a series of attempts by states to mangle the instruction of U.S. history in one way or another. At this point, Oklahoma is simply trying to block certain classes. But if they had Texas’s work ethic, they’d mimic what the Lone Star State tried last year, and go to the trouble of creating new curricula using textbooks full of right-wing historical revisionism.
Oklahoma may just get there yet. Dan Fisher, the state representative behind the ban on AP U.S. History, claims that it “fails to teach ‘American exceptionalism,’” and he’s offered up his own list of 58 documents that can serve as a foundation for the right sort of history course (including three speeches each from Lincoln, FDR, and…Reagan). As ThinkProgress reports, the Republican National Committee has raised similar complaints, claiming last year that “a new framework for the [AP U.S. History] exam ‘reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.’” There are other efforts to beef up the curricular patriotism in Colorado, South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina.
The language of these conservative activists is all about exceptionalism, but as I keep saying, this is chauvinism, not exceptionalism. Exceptionalism implies a far more morally demanding stance, not a self-satisfied pat on the back. In this sense, Fisher’s membership in a group called the “Black Robe Regiment” is especially striking. As ThinkProgress explains, the Black Robe Regiment “argues ‘the church and God himself has been under assault, marginalized, and diminished by the progressives and secularists.’ The group attacks the ‘false wall of separation of church and state’” and “claims that a ‘growing tide of special interest groups [is] indoctrinating our youth at the exclusion of the Christian perspective.’”
By now, we’re all accustomed to this ugly fusion of religious fundamentalism and chauvinist nationalism. But it’s nonetheless a little strange, in precisely the same way that Fisher and company’s attempt to hijack the language of exceptionalism is strange. For centuries, the common rhetorical move of religious fundamentalists has been to decry America for its manifold sins. Sometimes, this condemnation has served illiberal, violent, discriminatory ends. Other times, it has provided moral, rhetorical, and institutional support for some of the country’s greatest reform movements. But whether reformist or reactionary, the loudest religious voices have usually cried out that Americans have a lot to answer for. The contemporary inversion of that tradition—wherein the loudest religious voices insist that we’re amazing, exceptional, and have nothing to apologize for—is head-spinning. It also saps the vitality from one of America’s oldest and most powerful rhetorical traditions.