(Getty/John Leyba​)

(Getty/John Leyba​)

Afunny thing has happened to a petition posted online by Larry Krieger, a former Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher, and Jane Robbins, a conservative opponent of the Common Core educational standards. In their petition, written as an open letter to the president of the College Board, they ask readers to support their quest to reform the newest version of the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History course, which the College Board implemented in the current school. Nearly half a million high school students took the College Board’s AP U.S. History exam last year to try to earn college credit. The course’s new framework, Krieger and Robbins argue, presents a negative view of the American past, emphasizing the “oppressors and exploiters” among our lot, rather than the “dreamers and innovators.” The old course taught students that early British colonists sought “to build a ‘City upon a Hill.’” The new one teaches them that these same colonists, possessed by “a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority,” organized their society according to “a rigid racial hierarchy.” Among other things.

Since late February, when an Oklahoma State House committee voted to eliminate AP U.S. history instruction in the state (they’ve since walked it back to a review of the curriculum), a number of people have signed the petition with fake names. Many of these are vulgar complaints directed against the petition’s authors, but a few are clean, and some are even funny. For example: “America Was Born Perfect Then It Got More Perfect.” Another: “I Fully Support AP Standards. The Authors Of This Letter Can Not Meet Them.” And, perhaps contributed by someone who can, and who is playing a deep game, both historically and humor-wise: “JOHN ADAMS SIGNED THE TREATY OF TRIPOLI.” (Wikipedia tells me that the Treaty of Tripoli signed by Adams contains a disputed passage stating that the U.S. government was not “founded on the Christian religion.”)

Robbins and Krieger published their petition on August 4, 2014. On August 8, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution calling for the rethinking of AP U.S. History education. Echoing Robbins and Krieger, the RNC argues that the new framework departs from the balanced view of American history traditional to the course: where, the resolution laments, are “the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history”?

It’s true—George Washington is only mentioned glancingly in the new framework. But as this document itself states, it does not—nor is it meant to—provide an exhaustive list of the historical events, people, and primary sources a given teacher might use to illuminate the conceptual knowledge and skills of historical analysis that students must absorb to do well on the exam. Where the framework gives examples that teachers might use to communicate a particular concept, it does so because teachers who reviewed the guidelines for the College Board indicated that they had difficulty coming up with examples they might use to teach that concept. Throughout, the framework emphasizes that teachers are by no means bound by these examples. The sermon in which Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop described the new settlement “as a city upon a hill”—one of the foundational texts that critics claim is absent from the new framework, and the Oklahoma bill lists as a text it would require in high school U.S. history classes—would fit right in as a source that could spark classroom discussion of the founding ideals of Puritan New England.

But whether conservative critics of the AP U.S. History framework tendentiously misread the primary source document isn’t really the most interesting question one could ask. Their response to the new framework exposes deeper, underlying tensions in how we think and talk about history, particularly national history: when do we say “we” in history? With whom do we say it? When we look around at the past, who do we point to and say, “Them. Those are my people. Those are our people”? These are questions whose history is at once troubling and exalted. The answers necessarily include some, exclude others. They’re the foundation of a nation, or a religion, both of which find their identities by tracing their own particular thread of “we” through history. Answers to these questions can also be the premise for action—often violent—as when nations, or subgroups within them, seek to subordinate, or even eliminate, those who don’t fit a particular vision of who “we” are.

Yet, perhaps these questions don’t belong in a U.S. history classroom—or, at the very least, in that space, their answers should not be assumed. The AP framework seems to take this stance; this may be one of the reasons it so frustrates its critics. In its discussion of the early history of settlement, warfare, and colonial expansion in the territory that became the United States, the new framework resists saying “we.” On the religious roots of the American Revolution, it reads, “Protestant evangelical religious fervor strengthened many British colonists’ understandings of themselves as a chosen people blessed with liberty, while Enlightenment philosophers and ideas inspired many American political thinkers to emphasize individual talent over hereditary privilege.”

This is hardly neglect: evangelical fervor is right there, strengthening British colonists’ resolve when confronted with challenges to their liberties. But in speaking of “British colonists’ understandings of themselves,” the language also sets up a distance between us and them. They understood themselves as a chosen people blessed with liberty; we can adopt that view if we wish, but we don’t have to take it on uncritically. The framework creates this measure of historical distance not only between us and early American Protestants, but between us and each of the many different kinds of colonial Americans it discusses—enslaved Africans, Indians, and colonists, traders, missionaries, and adventurers from France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands. It presents colonial history as a diverse space inhabited by many different kinds of people, with many different kinds of aims. Students of a range of backgrounds might see themselves here—though the framework certainly doesn’t force them to.

Avoiding the historical “we” isn’t necessarily easy. I teach early modern European history. A few years ago, I caught myself, mid-lecture, somewhat startled, saying “we” in reference to historical figures. But not all of them, I realized. Who was I saying “we” with? Did I say it with Glückel of Hameln, a seventeenth-century Jewish businesswoman, mother, and wife, whose memoir we read and discussed? No. Did I say it with the Algonquian Indians that explorer and mathematician Thomas Harriot encountered when, in the late sixteenth century, he voyaged to a land he called Virginia—on our maps, coastal North Carolina? No. Oh. When I said “we” in the classroom, I was assimilating myself to the perspective of white, Christian Europeans, many of them men. What train of inheritance was I implicating myself in? My students?

At the university where I taught at the time, in the mountains of North Carolina, most of the students in my specialized, upper-division courses on early modern Europe or Britain were white. Occasionally, they brought up their religious backgrounds in class: when we discussed the Reformation, for example, or the early history of the Methodist movement, John Wesley’s eighteenth-century push for the spiritual reform of the Anglican church. Many students identified as some variety of Christian—non-denominational, Baptist, or Methodist, occasionally Lutheran or Catholic. There was a bit more ethnic diversity in the classes that I taught for non-majors, general surveys of European political, religious, and intellectual history, with a few Black, Latino, and Asian American students scattered amongst the majority white student bodies.

Since that day, I’ve done my best to escape the historical “we,” at least in the classroom. This “we” was as much a disservice to my white students as it was to their Black, Latino, and Asian American peers, whom it tended to exclude. It encouraged white students to assimilate, uncritically, the perspective of those in history who happened to share their skin color and (for many of them) their religious identity. In truth, over four centuries, so much has changed in the lived experience of racial and ethnic identity and religious belief that my students have much more in common with each other than with their racial and religious forebears.

The AP U.S. history framework’s conservative critics, Krieger, Robbins, and the Republican National Committee, seem most troubled that high school students would learn that while not all colonial-era Americans were white, plenty of the white ones were racist, and this racism shaped the country just as much as Protestant ideals of religious and political liberty. Indeed, it’s more than that: the Protestant ideals and the racism were deeply intertwined. Many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century colonists believed that different kinds of bodies, under different kinds of circumstances, were fitted for different kinds of liberty, as can be seen in American historian Eric Foner’s popular college U.S. history textbook, Give Me Liberty!

How do we acknowledge and move forward from the sins of the past? The historical “we” in place, the distance between past and present falsely collapsed, we can only understand them as our own. Here is where the historical distance created by the AP U.S. framework, with its careful locutions, pays off. For, of course, in seeing that U.S. history has been shaped by racism, one may be lead to reflect upon our inheritance of that history, and how it plays out in daily life, in ways big and small, across the United States. Our history, properly told, should push students towards these kinds of reflections (though it won’t dictate their outcomes). But such thoughts may be particularly painful—too painful to confront—for those who look back on the “Founding Fathers,” and say, “Them. Those are my people. Those are our people.”

Recently, I’ve returned to reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost, composed in the mid-seventeenth century just as the second and third generations of British colonists in America were settling in for the long haul. The poem expresses many of the Puritan ideals that the New England colonists themselves held. I read a few lines each night as a kind of Lenten discipline. It’s the Zeno’s paradox of books, one I return to every few years, but never quite seem to finish. But there’s something I love about being the reader that Milton did not anticipate: an educated woman, mother of children, teacher of students, an Episcopalian in the New World.

Milton didn’t go in for women’s equality. In Book IV of Paradise Lost, when a newly created Eve first speaks to Adam, she proclaims not only her inferiority to Adam, but also her perfect contentment in that inferiority. As Satan watches on, Eve confesses to Adam that she owes God daily thanks for her creation, especially because she occupies “So far the happier lot, enjoying thee Preeminent by so much odds, while thou Like consort to thyself canst nowhere find.” God made Adam from the dust, and Eve from his rib: alone in the world together, Eve had a fit companion, one superior to herself, while Adam had no one to call a friend and equal. “He for God only,” Milton wrote, “she for God in him.”

Milton didn’t think much of me, apparently. Why not return the favor?

I could say a number of things in answer to this question: that Paradise Lost makes me laugh—as when upon viewing Adam and Eve in the garden for the first time, Satan exclaims, “Oh hell!” Or, that I love reading Milton’s sentences out loud, puzzling the meaning out of the grammar. Or, that sometimes the beauty of a phrase, or a passage, stops me for a moment, and I read that out loud, too. Or, that literary scholars, reading the poem in its historical context, disagree as to what, precisely, Eve’s speeches tell us about Milton’s attitudes towards women. Or, that in some maddening, allusive—and elusive—way, Paradise Lost is a book with which I say “we.” But perhaps all I should say is this: it must be a fragile faith that can be broken by the knowledge that its heroes—that we—are human.

Elizabeth Yale is the author of Script, Print, Speech, Mail: Nature, Nation, and Learned Communication in Early Modern Britain (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming). She teaches at the University of Iowa Center for the Book.