Politics & Policy

Go Back to Class

Students protest proposed curriculum changes in Edgewater, Colo.
The Colorado students protesting “censorship” aren’t the heroic dissenters they take themselves for.

A photograph of Andrea Colmenero, a high-school girl from Edgewater, Colo., graced Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times website. She is standing on the sidewalk holding a poster that reads, “Don’t CENCOR My Right to LEARN.”

She has more pressing concerns than “cencorship.”

Andrea is one of the inmates who, if not running Jefferson County, Colo.’s asylums — ahem, high schools — have managed to shut them down. On Friday, September 19, 50 teachers at two Jefferson County high schools called in sick or took personal time “to raise community awareness” about the county Board of Education’s “insistence on censoring the college preparatory AP [Advanced Placement] US History curriculum,” in the words of a press release issued by some of the teachers. Their awareness-raising forced the superintendent to shut down those schools.

The next week, students joined in, walking out of classes across the district. On Thursday, September 25, about 1,000 students from Columbine and Dakota Ridge High Schools crowded onto a pedestrian bridge, sounding bullhorns and waving signs with the slogan, “It’s our history, don’t make it a mystery.” On Tuesday, September 30, dozens of students from Carmody Middle School participated by walking out of classes and disrupting traffic.

What “censorship” are they protesting? In response to a new College Board “framework” that would tilt the AP U.S. History course curriculum leftward, three members of Jefferson County’s five-member Board of Education have proposed — note that word — a county-wide reform that would counter that tilt by emphasizing “positive aspects” of American history, those that “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.” The proposal advises against materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

The sign-waving baby barbarians currently lining Jefferson County’s streets are proof that the reform is well advised.

Let’s start with the obvious: Many of the students who are protesting are not interested in the curriculum of AP U.S. History, a subject that only a small number of high-schoolers ever take (about 120 each year at my high school of 2,500). So a whole bunch of students — most obviously, those middle-school students, all of whom are years away from AP U.S. History — are simply cutting class. They don’t care about whether history is a mystery, they just want out of school. (More accurate slogan: “This class is a bore. Let’s walk out the door.”)

Then there are the signs, which, misspellings and all, are predictable. At the Huffington Post, Joseph Palermo, an associate professor of history at Sacramento State University, lauds the students who, he says, are taking the cue from Occupy Wall Street and September’s People’s Climate March in New York City. Right — and that is the problem. Rather than learn something about American history (which would require staying in class), they encountered a minor offense to their sensibilities and immediately took to the streets. That is not “patriotic” protest; it is self-indulgent grievance-mongering. The Boston Tea Partiers, the Suffragettes, Rosa Parks — those folks had something to protest about, which is why they are American heroes. Zuccotti Park’s righteously indignant chief pot-brownie baker is not their equal. But make no mistake, the kids in Jefferson County are following in the footsteps of the latter, not the former.

The teaching of history is malleable, to be sure, and it is not inappropriate to ask what stories one is being taught. But these students pretend that what they want is a Dragnet-style, just-the-facts-ma’am historical education, when they are already beholden to a story: the Howard Zinn–esque tale that America’s turning points are moments of civil disobedience, and its great figures are the lawbreakers — of which the students fancy themselves, in their lesser way, the newest iteration. Teenagers who think rebellion is cool? I’m shocked.

As for the ideas that the reformed curriculum would emphasize, perhaps these students should learn about their alternatives. Maybe Jefferson County could start a foreign-exchange program to countries without the “essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.” How about Cuba? Maybe students could spend time in a country without the rule of law. How about North Korea? Maybe they could take a semester abroad somewhere with no “respect for individual rights.” How about Syria?

That these ideas are, on the whole, good is not radical right-wing revisionism. It’s the hard-learned wisdom of millennia of human existence. And that same wisdom has tempered the impulse to rebel, helping to make dissent, protest, and disobedience prudent and constructive, not foolhardy, self-indulgent, and detrimental. Balancing liberty and security, self-assertion and submission, is an art. It requires some learning.

These students might know that if they went to class.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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