A gentle reminder ...

The goal of this blog initially was for Mr. Mc to show his students and friends what he doing while in Pennsylvania and DC in 2011. Now it's being used as a place for him, travelling colleagues and former students to discuss edumacation and history related "stuff" as well as ... well, anything which pops into his head. Mr. Mc would never knowingly embarrass either the school he loves or the family he is devoted to. By joining in the discussion, he expects the same of you.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

An open letter on "American Exceptionalism"...

Kansas' state motto is Ad Aspera Per Aspera: To the stars through difficulties. Rep. Fisher, I don't think we can get to the stars without being honest in our discussion of our successes and our difficulties.
Dear Oklahoma Representative Fisher,

I am not a resident of your state (Although as a boy from Arkansas City, Kansas, I can say with surety that I could see Oklahoma 'from my house' to quote a political pundit. :)). I also am not an AP history teacher, but I would like to weigh in on your recent bill in your state's legislature.
As a middle school history teacher, I often use the phrase, "Say more" to get a student to dig deeper into an answer or thought. I'm not challenging or correcting the idea. I just need more information.
So I am asking you, what do you mean by American Exceptionalism?
I do agree that America is exceptional. I am so proud of so much of what we've become and what we will become. I love the preamble of the Constitution's idea of a "more perfect union." I see that as one of my callings as a teacher. How can I get my young charges to see into the future and see what's next for the American experiment? What notion do we need to wrestle with? What concept do we need to challenge? I think that is the calling of our elected officials, as well. That is why I am asking you to say more.
I think that we are exceptional. But we are not done.
I think that exceptional isn't a location or one static moment. I hate this cliché, but clichés are almost based on a truism. Exceptionalism isn't the destination but the journey itself. Our goal is to be more perfect and we can't get there without honest assessment.
Some of my favorite moments in my classroom have come when we have wrestled with what is difficult.
  • Supreme Court cases like Tinker v. Des Moines--what makes for an appropriate learning environment in the midst of turbulent social and political moments in history? (I noticed in the suggested list in the text of the bill that there were no Supreme Court decisions. I think that is problematic. I say, respectfully, that to miss the voice of one third of our governmental leadership is shortsighted.)
  • Global Warming--what is our responsibility to the world in which we live?
  • Manifest Destiny--how can we reconcile this American need to expand with the genuine wrongs we inflicted on nations of people? (De Tocqueville would suggest the policies of westward expansion crippled both Native Americans and enslaved people, and I would agree. I am pleased he made the list.)
  • Race--Lincoln suggested in his Second Inaugural (I am excited to see this speech made your list.) that 250 years of sin as a nation for the institution of slavery might need to be countered by 250 years of penance after slavery. I think he may have closer to right than I wish to admit. How do we, then, help the truly bottom-stuck, encourage those who Dr. King pointed out have rights but no hope, and foster racial cooperation and dialogue that goes beyond platitudes and hyperbole?
Rep. Fisher, these are questions my 14 year olds want answered. They don't want to shy away from them. They take Madison and Jefferson at their word. I am humbled by their fearlessness.

Again, I think that we are exceptional. But we are not done.

I think you and I differ on the result of what we see in the APUSH curriculum. In the hands of skilled AP teachers, student's wrestle with the ideas of the national narrative by looking at all our moments, best and worst. I can say in my ten years as an educator, I know dozens of AP teachers who do that work and do it brilliantly. I can say one of the finest teacher's I know teaches APUSH in Oklahoma. You should ask him his thoughts on the subject. I honestly don't know what his answers would be, but I tell my charges that a primary source is the motherload for any researcher. Secondary sources are helpful, but primary sources are GOLD!

In a missive already too long, may I ask a couple questions about the bill?

Is the goal to rewrite curriculum because of its content or its source? Part of the newspaper analysis of the bill suggests this is about 'nationalized' education. If it is, that is fine. However that reframes the question from American Exceptionalism to politics. If its about the politics of education, I would like to graciously bow out of the conversation. My interest is in how to be a better educator, not listening to bloviating from both sides with children caught in the cross-fire.

How many educators and students have you brought into this discussion? Not politician or PACs. Not administrators. I would even avoid parents in the initial discussions; just start with the people in the classroom. I noticed that by the end of the day HR 130 was withdrawn due to the responses you received over its vote in committee.  I say with all respect that my response to that is that this was a half-formed idea that many teachers would have challenged you to rethink well before it made its way to committee. If that is incorrect, please accept my apology. To my untrained eyes, however...

Again, Rep. Fisher, please accept this letter in the manner it is intended. Public Service is one of the things that I think makes America exceptional. We are all expected to be civic-minded. I hold the Capra-esque view that no one enters the public arena with blind ambition and ambivalence to their fellow man. And for your service to your state, I thank you.

Dave McIntire

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