Littwin: Don’t know much about AP history

Don’t know much about history. — the late, great Sam Cooke
Don’t know much about AP history. — the not-quite-so-great Julie Williams

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s you may have heard, Jefferson County School Board member Julie Williams is upset about the direction of the Advanced Placement U.S. History course curriculum. And so she has proposed that a committee be formed to review it to ensure that the curriculum — written by, you know, historians — is sufficiently patriotic and sufficiently respectful of authority.

As Williams puts it, she wants to make sure that the AP course emphasizes the “positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

So what exactly in the coursework has caused Williams such concern?

She has no idea.

I mean that — to quote Joe Biden — literally. She has no idea. After a fourth consecutive day of Jeffco student protests — the best example of student democracy in action you could ask for — 9News’ Whitney Wild got Williams on the phone and asked her about all the turmoil.

Not surprisingly, Williams said the students were “uninformed pawns” of the teachers’ union. It’s not surprising because Williams is one of the Jeffco 3, the recently elected, Koch-brothers-praised, ultra-conservative school board majority that has gone to war with Jeffco schools as we once knew them.

But when Wild asked Williams what the AP curriculum writers might have gotten wrong about U.S. history, it turned out that Williams was the one who was uninformed. Wild said that Williams couldn’t name a single example.

[pullquote]Williams said students protesting the curriculum changes she suggests are needed are ‘uninformed pawns’ of the teachers union. She also said she’s not ‘familiar enough’ with the current curriculum to say what’s wrong with it.[/pullquote]

What Williams did say was this: “I’m not familiar enough with everything that is in AP history to make that judgment.”

So, she gets an incomplete? OK, that might be unfair. To her credit, Williams has inadvertently provided the inspiration for the best Jeffco-based hashtag of the year: #JeffCoSchoolBoardHistory, in which you name examples of history as the Jeffco school board would want it written. Sample that I read: If it wasn’t for a ban on high-capacity magazines, Davy Crockett would have held the Alamo.

We know where Williams got her inspiration. This AP course is the latest cause taken up by conservatives, sharing the educational spotlight with the Common Core drama. You know about Common Core, in which states would share, uh, common educational goals, which would lead to God knows what, but something apparently really, really bad.

The AP controversy hasn’t gotten the same kind of play, but you can go to National Review and Breitbart and the usual suspects to learn more about the AP’s so-called “left-leaning” and “subversive” and “blame-America-first” ideology. In these critics’ view, there is not enough said about the Founders and maybe too much said about people who found themselves on the wrong side of Manifest Destiny. The Texas board is all over this. And the Republican National Committee.

In Williams’ proposal for a review committee – which was tabled at the last school board meeting — she said she wanted a history course that would “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.”

And she wanted to eliminate any materials from the AP course’s playbook that would “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

She wanted “good citizens, not rebels.”

Teachers called it censorship and ahistorical and staged a sick-out at two schools last Friday. And then the students joined in — first by the hundreds and now, according to the estimates, by the thousands — leaving school in walk-outs.

I talked to Ashlyn Maher, one of the walk-out leaders at Chatfield High. She resented being called a pawn and said that her teachers weren’t allowed to even bring up the topic in class, much less encourage rebellion.

Maher is a Chatfield senior who plans to someday major in either — get ready for this — astrobiology or planetary geology. Meanwhile, she got a call the other day from classmate Scott Romano, who asked her if she wanted to help organize an action. She did. They put together a Facebook page, which got more than 500 likes. They told students not to walk out unless they understood why they were doing it. They linked to articles explaining the situation. And on Wednesday, maybe half the school walked — many with their parents’ approval, many holding signs like “Don’t make history a mystery.”

“This is us,” said Maher, who said she took AP History in her sophomore year. “We’re not pawns being used by the teachers. We’re not pawns of anyone. We have a stake in the game the Board is playing.”

She said she got out her old AP history notebook and highlighted all the things the board said is missing from the curriculum.

“It was all in there,” she said. “Boston Tea Party? Washington’s Farewell Address? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Really? They said we focused too much on gender and ethnicity and classism. How can we learn about Martin Luther King if we don’t learn about racism?”

And now she’s learning about irony. It is ironic, for example, that so-called Tea Partiers would want to remove reading matter that would “encourage or condone civil disorder.”

It’s ironic that Williams doesn’t want “rebels” when the country was founded — she must know this — in rebellion.

I’m guessing the school board will try to pretend the proposal never happened. See: #JeffcoSchoolBoardHistory. There are already signs of backtracking. But it may be too late. Otherwise the history of Jefferson County schools would have to include a chapter on a bunch of engaged high school students who forced an ill-informed school board to back down.

[ Photo of Jeffco School Board member Julie Williams via Westword. ]


  1. With you all the way, Mike (I’m a long-time fan!)

    My worry is that all we’ve done here is point out that they can’t assume we all think like them, and their next attempt at subverting the education system will be cloaked in subterfuge and much more Machiavellian.

  2. Many of us who support Jeffco students and teachers in preserving APUSH, also do NOT support Common Core, but not primarily for the reasons cited here. Huffington Post did a piece today similarly titled about “Don’t know much about history…” It connected some dots regarding many concerns many have regarding the “public” education reform movement. What appear as strange bedfellows (progressives and conservatives), has the public confused. The resulting curriculum development and insane (profitable) testing connected to the Common Core movement is fueling much of the anger which is brewing among community members. Touting free market economics in public education is, for me, one of the big igniters for many of us. This free market reform has resulted in over-development of the assessments and constant retooling of concepts that didn’t work in the first place (at least for a majority of our struggling students) — destroying many a child’s love of learning and self, and many a good teacher’s lifelong career and passion.

    Thanks for continuing to cover this. Next week will be interesting in metro area schools. These kids have a whole weekend to continue organizing to make history about history. Something the adults seem to have had a hard time accomplishing. Many ironies in this ongoing story.

  3. Wonderful column, but I don’t think the school board will pretend it didn’t happen. Williams has shown no sign of backing down. The story is that this committee isn’t on the agenda for Oct. 2, but any board member can add an agenda item. Even if board president Ken Witt is hoping to keep it off, Williams can and likely will add it.

    What they don’t want is dialogue. Whether or not they can avoid having it remains to be seen.

  4. Dictators always attempt to rewrite history to serve their own needs. I am a retired history teacher living in Parker.

  5. This woman is a HORRIBLE example of what an American is. “…sufficiently respectful of authority”? And this woman calls herself an American? I’m sorry, but REAL Americans don’t DO respect for authority all that well. Because authority is frequently people like this woman who don’t DESERVE respect.

    Next time you get a chance to vote for someone in such a position, pay attention to who they are. Either people weren’t or they are foolish enough to think that this right wing dolt would do something OTHER than monkey wrench the whole process of education. It MATTERS that you vote and WHO you vote for. This nonsense is proof positive of that fact.

  6. Mike, pay attention to the lessons of Douglas County. These people won’t back down and won’t backtrack for long. They’ll decide they did it too quickly and they’ll just regroup and proceed more slowly next time. Fully steeped in Fox News and fiery sermons, they have no room in their small minds for doubt. Like a pedophile on a testosterone high, they truly believe they are helping the kids.

    The people who voted for this board are getting exactly what they want and will not have second thoughts. Parents whose brains are still operational need to think about whether it’s such a good idea to live in a toxic waste site, regardless of how beautiful it appears.

  7. yep, my friend who has kids in Lakewood, fully supports the students and teachers…the wingers are a danger to the USofA…We have the same problem on the western slope…an extreme school board, of whom I never voted for…yet, here we are, the christian taliban…

  8. There is one word I haven’t seen yet in any discussion about this topic: recall. Maybe time to start thinking about it.

  9. I remember reading Mr. Littwin when he had short hair (but the same glorious mustache) while working for the Baltimore Sun. I wish he’d come back because the Sun is rapidly falling into irrelevance. But still, excellent work, sir. May your common sense somehow penetrate the fog of stupidity grabbing all too many in power these days.

  10. Quoting the AP Board…

    To offer a course labeled “AP” or “Advanced Placement,” a school must agree to meet the expectations set for such courses by the more than 3,300 colleges and universities across the globe that use AP Exam scores for credit, placement, or consideration in the admission process.

    As vital context for the courageous voices of the students in Colorado, the AP community, our member institutions and the American people can rest assured: If a school or district censors essential concepts from an Advanced Placement course, that course can no longer bear the “AP” designation.

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