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Historical Skills and Worldviews

AP U.S. History, Daniel Burns


John Witherspoon

 Welcome once again to AP U.S. History for the 2016-2017 school year! The purpose of this document is to lay some philosophical and methodological groundwork for our study of history this year.

As you know, the College Board implemented a new APUSH curriculum framework and exam a couple years ago that caused all APUSH teachers to substantially rewrite their courses. Although the changes have received some bad press, from my viewpoint some of them are useful and even beneficial to developing a Christian understanding of our history.

One of the areas of emphasis in the new curriculum framework is a renewed focus on historical thinking skills. The idea is to train students to engage in the work of a historian at an introductory level. What do professional historians do? They examine evidence from all available sources to come to conclusions about the past. Those sources of evidence include documents, photographs, journal entries, archeological digs, personal interviews, the work of other historians, and much more. All of this evidence is filtered through an evaluation process to determine the meaning and credibility of the evidence. What were the biases of the source? Who was the intended audience and how might the intended audience affect its credibility? Was the evidence tampered with over time? How have other historians interpreted it?

In APUSH, you probably won't have the opportunity to conduct your own archeological dig, but you will be presented with plenty of evidence to sort through. The textbook, supplementary sources, and primary sources will give you the raw material to work with as you argue for thesis statements and evaluate sources. The basic idea is that APUSH students are doing history instead of just studying history. This approach is much more interesting than a traditional memorization-based approach. The emphasis on doing history puts a big focus on critical thinking skills such as analysis, argumentation, and causation. So be prepared to be stretched and challenged along the way!

"Critical thinking skills" is a buzz word in education today, and while these skills are extremely important, there is a danger in emphasizing critical thinking to the point of sophistry. What I mean by sophistry here is argument for its own sake rather than an honest pursuit of truth. In the postmodern view of history that dominates academia, truth is a relative construct and ultimately unknowable, so historians can build whatever narrative they want from the evidence. In my Christian worldview, on the other hand, I know there is objective truth and seek to find it.

Here's your first bonus assignment to help you get started on your class participation points: get a copy of David Noebel's book Understanding the Times 2nd edition (2006) and read the sections in chapter 10 on the Christian and Postmodern views of history. You might be able to find a copy in a library or get the Kindle version on Amazon for $9.95. I'll give five class participation points for reading these two sections and posting your reaction on the general discussion forum.

One thing you'll notice from reading Noebel's book is that the Christian worldview of history has a purpose and direction - creation, fall, and redemption. The heroes of the past are often those who have acted most consistently with God's redemptive plan, while the villains have done just the opposite. On the other hand, for the Postmodern view, history not only lacks purpose and direction, but claims that history is actually unknowable. Every historian approaches his subject tainted by biases built into his identity and cultural context. Thus the historian builds a narrative (that may or may not be true) from the perspective of his social group for the purposes of advancing its present-day political agenda. Read the chapter to flesh out these ideas in more detail.

Christians often criticize secular revisionist historians who "rewrite" the history books to promote a liberal agenda, but then commit the same error themselves in service to a conservative agenda. My approach is to neither downplay the greatness and uniqueness of America's heritage nor whitewash its faults. I want to celebrate the incredible freedom and prosperity the U.S. has enjoyed and how it has often been a force for good around the world, while acknowledging its many shortcomings. After all, a country is a collection of individuals who are created in the image of God and yet have a sin nature, so we would expect a country's record to be mixed. The objective is not a liberal or conservative agenda, but pursuit of truth.

Mr. Burns

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