Advanced Placement history nixes ‘racial superiority’ from Manifest Destiny

Q&A: Historian Amy Greenberg says curriculum revisions miss a major part of the story.

 

Right now, Advanced Placement United States History teachers are preparing about a half million high school students for an exam that could give them college credit and a leg up in university applications. But that test won’t be the same their predecessors took last year, or even the same as the one the year before. The College Board, which administers the course framework and exam, has changed the parameters for many important concepts and themes. 

lost-in-the-american-dream-jpg
“Lost in the American Dream”
Flickr user: Colin Poellot

The course, widely adopted by high schools and taken by college-bound students, hasn’t been updated since 2006. The 2014 update, all things considered, didn’t go so well. The specific changes — to Manifest Destiny, World War II, Ronald Reagan and European settlement — inspired so much backlash that the College Board’s committee in charge of rewriting it, went back to the drawing board. In July, they released the final change that is a more “conceptual approach as opposed to specificity required for memorization,” says Maria Montoya, a New York University history professor that helped rewrite the framework.

Here’s how that change looks:

2014 version: “The idea of Manifest Destiny, which asserted U.S. power in the Western Hemisphere and supported U.S. expansion westward, was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority, and helped to shape the era’s political debates.”

2015 version: The movement west was due to “the desire for access to natural and mineral resources and the hope of many settlers for economic opportunities or religious refuge.” Advocates of annexing lands “argued that Manifest Destiny and the superiority of American institutions compelled the United States to expand its borders westward to the Pacific Ocean.”

But now a new set of critics are decrying the change. The College Board says A.P. history teachers widely accept the change, but the changes have become a political issue, especially the Manifest Destiny portion. Conservatives called the 2014 edition not patriotic enough; critics, however, say the 2015 definition of Manifest Destiny ignores important racial connotations. Amy Greenberg, a historian at Penn State and the author of Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion, worries the new definition will skew the understanding of a dangerous concept. Greenberg explains why these battles matter.

High Country News: How did Manifest Destiny play out in the American West?

Amy Greenberg: Manifest Destiny presented a certain vision of the American West of this so-called “virgin land.” It was an idea of the American West as open, free, unsettled territory that was waiting for U.S. citizens to conquer and properly make use of. The whole idea of the American West — and the way we think about it today — emerges out of a vision of Manifest Destiny.

HCN: How has the perception of this concept evolved?

AG: The first uses of manifest destiny (in the 1830s) were propaganda from a very particular perspective: We need to go take these territories from the other nations because it’s our manifest destiny. God has basically proclaimed that it’s our destiny to take over because the United States had a lot to offer people in these areas. So, it’s not just our manifest destiny to take that land, but it’s also our manifest destiny to bring the blessings of American civilization to areas that it doesn’t exist. It justifies land acquisition by asserting that America is exceptional, and we’re actually doing a favor to the people who live in these places. In the 1840s and ‘50s, the concept becomes very popular. You can see ordinary people writing letters talking about manifest destiny. In the 1950s and ‘60s, — this was during the Cold War — you had a whole strain of historians that were very invested in proving that the United States was essentially different from the Soviet Union. One way to do that is to say that because of Manifest Destiny, we naturally moved into contiguous territory, brought the blessing of democracy to the residents there. A lot of violence and war that was involved in this was completely obscured.

“American Progress,” 1872, by John Gast. America's westward movement portrayed as bison herds and Indians retreat from manifest destiny embodied by a woman that strings telegraph wire in her wake.
Flickr user: pittigliani2005.

HCN: Did American exceptionalism impact how Native Americans were treated?

AG: There’s a great image by John Gast called “American Progress” from 1873 that really sums it up. If you look in the corner, you see Indians running away in fear because they’re afraid of this fantastic, scantily clad, flying white woman. She’s carrying the telegraph line, she has a book that is likely the Bible or a book or learning and you have all of the settlers just following her. This photo represents a justification of what I would argue for basically a series of wars against Indians. It’s not like anybody is even attacking these Indians. They are just running away. Even the dog is running away. But if you look at what actually happened during settlement of the West, those guys would be killing the Indians.

HCN: Some opponents say the new framework is a watered down version of history. Is that fair?

AG: It doesn’t strike me as watered down, so much as just totally different. There’s nothing factually wrong in the new version, but it’s really beside the point. The racial superiority and cultural superiority are more important and certainly helped shaped the era’s political beliefs and debates. Everyone wants economic opportunities and everyone wants natural resources, but that’s not essentially what [Manifest Destiny] is about.

HCN: What does it mean to have a more sterilized version at this moment in time?

AG: It seems like a step backwards in recognizing the role of race in American history. It makes Indians invisible. It’s really odd. This is the difference between what people say, and why they’re saying it. And I think the original definition gets more into why people were saying it, and the new framework of manifest destiny is staying more on the surface.

HCN: Why is an accurate understanding of Manifest Destiny important?

AG: The importance of understanding what Manifest Destiny was really about is realizing what roles things like racism have played in the past. What’s at stake is people’s ability to logically and realistically critique political discourse today. In other words, at the time of the Iraq war, people were using Manifest Destiny a lot, and mostly in a positive way. They were saying our manifest destiny is to bring democracy to these places. It’s very interesting and also troubling, because you see a slippage between the way in which the discourse of Manifest Destiny is justified and [the way it] allowed people to forget about things like killing all of the Indians. If you actually know what Manifest Destiny was and what it did, one would hope that you are more able to see the problems with that discourse today. Manifest Destiny is not this benign force. It’s an ideology that’s been mobilized in order to justify a lot of bad stuff.

HCN: How does a valorization of Manifest Destiny shape students’ understanding of history?

AG: I think this new framework is doing the students a disservice. It’s providing them with what I would say is a historically inaccurate view of what Manifest Destiny is. I wonder what those students are going to deal with when they get to college and take more advanced history classes that have a totally different framework. You’re going to have to look really hard to find a college professor who focuses on western expansion and manifest destiny that is going to agree with this framework.