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World-Herald editorial: The lessons from our past

World-Herald editorial: The lessons from our past

A revision of the U.S. history curriculum for Advanced Placement students by the College Board has triggered controversy, World-Herald reporting has explained.

Critics say the changes skew the curriculum toward an obsessively negative portrayal of our national past, forcing a warped depiction of the United States upon impressionable young minds.

Defenders say the changes reflect modern academic scholarship and present a more realistic and complete approach to the multiple dimensions of America’s national experience.

The College Board curriculum changes are a framework. The primary factor determining the outcome will be how individual AP History teachers across the country ultimately choose to present the specifics in the classroom.

The proper course is to offer students a responsible, balanced approach: include the many undeniable positives as well as troubling negatives.

Among the many positives, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution tower as world-historical documents, with immense positive effects on the course of human events. Vital principles — constitutional protections for individual liberties, including free speech and religious belief; an appreciation of egalitarianism; the embrace of economic initiative — have defined our nation from its founding and inspired people across the globe.

Our nation’s founders lived at a time when monarchs and aristocrats dominated Europe’s politics and pushed back against democratic reforms. Yet James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and others helped our country take an extraordinary stride forward by establishing out of whole cloth a landmark governmental structure that, despite generations of partisan rancor, has proved remarkably enduring (in contrast to, say, France, which currently is on its fifth republic).

At the same time, it’s clear that injustice has, at times, punctuated America’s national story. There’s no need to run from those unsettling historical realities.

Slavery was a moral abomination that imposed unspeakable suffering on millions of men, women and children. Even after the Civil War, Jim Crow abuses meant continued misery for black people.

In Nebraska, the name “Standing Bear” reminds us of the suffering of Native American peoples — but also of the possibilities when the U.S. legal system allows justice to be served.

If a teacher, whether in high school or at the university level, leans too far in the positive or negative direction, instruction in history becomes a tool for ideology and politics rather than the serious-minded pursuit of knowledge.

A responsible teacher, like a responsible society, will pass on to each generation a vital lesson: In looking to the nation’s history, there is much to appreciate and praise even as we acknowledge and learn from past failings.

When we encourage each new generation to appreciate our nation’s strengths and understand its shortcomings, we lay the path for a stronger future.

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