The Christian Nation (and the AP Test)

One of the ongoing issues in America’s blue state-red state culture war (along with evolution, abortion, and gay marriage) is the notion that the United States was founded as an explicitly Christian nation. I suppose I should state here that I stand on the “liberal” side of all of these issues, although I respect the sincerity of those who don’t, and I can’t stand the condescension regularly served to them by the vast majority of my colleagues in the humanities and social sciences. Still, any fair examination of the primary sources indicates that the founders of this country were for the most part Enlightenment Deists, trusting in providence to guide them, but in no way motivated by the earlier, Puritan notion of a City on a Hill, or any resurrected idea of a sacred covenant between God and his people. (I remember flipping through television channels once and pausing briefly on a religious one; the show being aired suggested that we needed to “look beyond” the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, to some backwoods New England preacher who claimed that God’s blessing was upon the new American enterprise, presumably because Jefferson and Paine were effete cultural elites while the Rev. Backwoods represented “the people.”) But what can you do? I suppose that if you’re really religious you need to explain America’s power somehow – nothing happens without God letting it, so how else could the US have gotten this way? (The reverse of: Something bad happened to you? What did you do to deserve it?) On a more mundane level Christians surely take comfort in the idea that their faith is endorsed by the history and the government of their own country. But as a historian I am compelled to follow primary sources and not any theological ideas about what is supposed to have happened, and as a Christian, I think that government endorsement of Christianity is generally a bad idea, ultimately corrupting and enervating it.

So I must say that I am not particularly thrilled to read that “Oklahoma Lawmakers Vote Overwhelmingly To Ban Advanced Placement U.S. History”:

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.

Oklahoma Rep. Dan Fisher (R) has introduced “emergency” legislation “prohibiting the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States History course.” Fisher is part of a group called the “Black Robe Regiment” which 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.” The Black Robe Regiment claims that a “growing tide of special interest groups indoctrinating our youth at the exclusion of the Christian perspective.”

This article, from Think Progress, is definitely written in an unsympathetic spirit, and I would be interested in reading what exactly Fisher objects to in the AP curriculum, and what he proposes replacing it with. But if this article is essentially true, it’s rather depressing. Yes, professional historians have their own biases and blind spots. But I trust them more than I trust the Black Robe Regiment, whose use of the word “indoctrinating” is a shining example of the word “projection.”

(Although, I will say that they do have one thing right, if for the wrong reasons. It’s not that AP courses are “liberal,” it’s that they exist in the first place. From the article:

Advanced Placement courses are actually developed by a private group, the College Board, and are not required of any student or high school. They are the primary way that student can earn college credit in high school. Taking advanced placement course can save students money and are generally seen as a prerequisite to admission to elite colleges.

In my day, and in my country, high school courses were high school courses, and university courses were university courses. If you got credit for one, you didn’t get credit for the other. You could place out of a university course if you had mastered the material, for sure, but there were no opportunities for double-dipping. Alas, each university is compelled to participate in this system, because all the other ones do.)

Thought After Teaching Today

We’re used to thinking of the Peloponnesian War as somehow parallel to the Cold War, with the Delian League in the role of NATO, and the Peloponnesian League as the Warsaw Pact. This comes naturally because Athens was the democracy, while Sparta was this grim, militaristic place where everyone was equal in deprivation. I suppose the fact that Athens was far more commercial than Sparta is also a factor. But what if the opposite is true? Consider the respective powers’ treatment of their alliances: Athens treated the Delian League far more like the USSR treated the member states of the Warsaw Pact than the US ever treated NATO (Mytilene and Melos as Budapest and Prague). And keep in mind that America is not a democracy in the Athenian sense. In Athens, every citizen got a vote, not for a representative, but in the assembly itself, on any question put before it. This would be as if every American had a vote in the House of Representatives, with no Senate, Presidential veto, or Supreme Court to deny their resolutions. This was really quite radical, and Athens had a great deal of the natural sympathy of the landless throughout the Greek world (there were always democratic factions in every polis) – much as Communism had an inherent appeal to the downtrodden of the Third World during the Cold War.

I don’t think that historical comparisons are never appropriate but I do think that we need to use them with care.

The Liberal Arts

This needs to be said again and again. On USA Today:

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Thinking Outside the Box

Our tech-driven future needs the skills of liberal arts graduates.

As more and more college students set their sights on jobs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, we tend to forget about figures across history who achieved great things in science but who had no formal training as “scientists” – for example, Benjamin Banneker, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci and George Washington Carver. It was the culmination of their experiences, curiosity and critical thinking that led them to the height of science, discovery and thought.

When most people hear “liberal arts” their thoughts turn entirely to the humanities. A rigid barrier in the popular mind separates disciplines like chemistry and physics from English literature and art. I’m a biochemist by training, but today I lead one of the nation’s most unique liberal arts colleges; just recently I sat in on classes in English, art and music. What we and many others have come to understand is that a full education in the humanities is not just important for a career in creative writing, it’s also critical to a career in one of the oft- discussed STEM fields.

In a difficult economy, the “employability” of an education is always given significant weight. Parents have understandably gone from encouraging “learning for the sake of learning” to emphasizing the course of study that they believe will set their child up for a rewarding career. There has even been discussion as to whether we really need the liberal arts at all – STEM-centric education is portrayed as the only option for our children’s economic futures.

But when you ask the employers at huge corporations and technology companies what they need in their new employees, they want people who can communicate and learn quickly outside of their comfort zone, both traits fostered better by a liberal arts education than a solely technical degree. Fast Company noted back in August that many tech CEOs actually prefer employees with liberal arts degrees, as “the liberal arts train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white.” At my former liberal arts institution, I helped start something called the Center for Entrepreneurship, which is providing strong evidence that a liberal arts college can be an incubator for tech and innovation.

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Read the whole thing.

A Peeve

It is always a temptation for teachers to want to innovate their curricula because what they’ve been teaching is old hat. Of course it’s old hat – to the teacher, who has been teaching the same thing for decades. But it’s completely new hat to the students! We’re all familiar with stories about history students who, having gone through the revised curriculum, know everything about the female mill workers of Lowell, Mass., but nothing about the political theory behind the American Revolution, or who know all about the hard tack consumed by the sailors in the Royal Navy, but not much about battle of Trafalgar or the Napoleonic Wars of which it was a part. The teacher might know all about it from when he himself was a student, making all the new information an exciting supplement to his knowledge base. But the student usually doesn’t, producing the effect of a building with a weak foundation, ramshackle frame, and gorgeous three-season deck.

Teachers need to be more humble about this.