US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Conservative assessments about the new Advanced Placement U.S. history guidelines sound ominous. When the guidelines go into effect, some conservative commentators warn, high school students in AP courses will be exposed to “a past that is completely unrecognizable,” “a dark retelling of US history” and “a warts-only take on America’s past.” “The College Board’s new and vastly more detailed guidelines,” writes Stanley Kurtz for National Review, “can only be interpreted as an attempt to hijack the teaching of U.S. history on behalf of a leftist political and ideological perspective.”

Reasonable people can disagree about what should be included in the AP guidelines. But treating those disagreements as a nefarious plot to indoctrinate students with an anti-American left-wing radicalism has serious implications. It turns the teaching of American history into an ideological battlefield, suggesting the best way to measure the validity of a historical argument is how well it aligns with one’s values rather than how well it explains the past. The result: an understanding of history that’s as polarized as our politics.

That polarization has already begun to take root in a new genre of right-wing pseudo-history. I first noticed the trend earlier this year when Roger Ailes announced his intention to launch his own history channel. “I'd like history done correctly for a change,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in January. “They're not teaching the kids the real stuff.” Ailes envisioned Bill O’Reilly, whose pop-history "Killing [A Famous Person]" series has topped best-seller lists, as the guiding force for the new network. Ailes and O’Reilly join conservative media personalities Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Dinesh D’Souza and Brian Kilmeade in expanding right-wing media’s focus from the present day to yesteryear.

The “real stuff” of history has always been politically contentious. From the textbook wars of the 1990s to David Horowitz’s affirmative action plan for conservative professors, the right has fought to counterbalance what it sees as an insidious liberal bias in education. But in training their sights on history, these conservative broadcasters are advancing something new. Rather than vying for a role in history education, they are creating a fact-lite version of history that is less about understanding the past than promoting the politics of the present.

So why does this matter? Basing history on ideology — making it primarily about advocacy — flips the discipline on its head. It starts with the answers, then bends the facts to fit them. Driving home this point: Much of what conservative broadcasters write is a blend of history and fiction. Though his children’s book "Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims" is clearly fictional (it co-stars a time-traveling talking horse, after all), Limbaugh claims it teaches “historical truth.” As he told a caller last week, he wrote the book as an antidote to liberal indoctrination, “so that kids learn historical truth and get a foundation of love and respect for this country, despite our flaws.”

Likewise, Beck’s latest book, "Miracles and Massacres," has the trappings of history, yet its endnotes suggest he's working in a more fictional capacity. Sources are cited as “the facts used to create this story,” and chapter notes list which scenes were imagined and what dialogue fabricated. It is not unique to this generation of conservative media to work in both the fictional and nonfictional genres — National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. was a prolific novelist — but the blending of the two in order to teach the “real stuff” blurs the bounds of reality, constituting a novel conservative postmodernism.

Not all of these pop-historians rely on fiction. Some cling to factual accuracy for dear life, insisting that as long as they have their facts straight, their work is beyond criticism. When conservative media personality Dinesh D’Souza reacted to my review of his movie “America: Imagine the World Without Her” a few weeks ago, he said, “This so-called historian who wrote for U.S. News and World Report doesn't dispute a single fact in our film.”

D’Souza seems to think the role of the historian is to be history’s fact-checker, tidying up timelines by correcting errant details here and there. He can be forgiven for that mistake — it’s one many people make. But accurate information is the first step in historical analysis, not its endpoint. Historians interpret the past. We explain how and why events unfolded as they did. Corralling historians off as fact-checkers suggests that when we go beyond that role, we’re doing something improper, that engaging in interpretation can only be about advancing ideological agendas.

By turning the field of history into the battlefield of ideology, conservative media activists threaten to do to history what they have done to media: convince Americans that all history is ideological, so they should pick the version that best suits their politics. We have red states and blue states — will we resign ourselves to red history and blue history as well?

If the public comes to see history the same way they are coming to see journalism — as inherently ideological, where the “truth” of a story is judged by its alignment with one’s political beliefs — then we lose something quite important: a shared history, or at least a shared understanding that the veracity of history matters.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report