An Open Letter to Jeffco Student Protesters Concerning History Standards

Author’s Note: The following post was intended to be published on September 29th but due to technical difficulties here at The Liberty Papers, publication had to wait. I do believe, however; this is still an ongoing, present concern and the subject matter extends far beyond the Jefferson County School District in the Centennial State.

Dear Student Protesters of Jefferson County:

I must begin with a confession. When I first learned of your student walkouts concerning some proposed changes to the AP History curriculum, I was more than a little bit cynical. These walkouts, I thought, were little more than an excuse to skip class and be ‘part of something.’ I don’t doubt that some students joined the walkouts for that reason; there are always individuals who join a cause because it seems to be the popular thing to do (I should point out that there are many people my age and older who do the very same thing so this is not a criticism of young people per se). This open letter is not intended for these students but for those of you who honestly care about the proposed changes to the history curriculum.

As I started reading about these protests it didn’t take me long to realize that you have very good reason to protest: the aims of the Jeffco School Board for the history curriculum are at best contradictory and misguided. The following paragraph in the Board Committee for Curriculum Review must be the primary reason for your protests:

Review criteria shall include the following: instructional materials should present the most current factual information accurately and objectively. Theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.

The first three sentences and the last sentence, I am sure, you have no problem with. The materials should be presented “accurately and objectively.”  But if the first goal is objectivity, how can the materials also “promote” other ideas such as citizenship and patriotism at the same time? Promotion of ideas by definition means they intend to encourage students to accept certain ideas and reject others. Objectivity means presenting the material without promoting a certain world view (which is much easier said than done).

You also seem to have a problem with the notion that the materials should “promote…respect for authority and respect for individual rights.” You should have a problem with this as often these two forces are often in conflict. If those in authority consistently respected individual rights, there would be no reason for concern. Had Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and all those who advocated and fought for independence had followed this advice (the very people the Jeffco Board wants to promote, no doubt), there wouldn’t have been Common Sense, The Declaration of Independence, no American Revolution, and no “United States and its heritage” to promote. It is my belief that authority should only be respected to the extent that those who are in positions of authority respect the rights of the individual.

As egregious as the Jeffco Board’s guidelines are, you concerned students need to understand that the history being taught in American classrooms has been agenda driven since the very beginning. There are political interests which determine what parts of history should be highlighted and which should be ignored.

Apart from differences of opinion and/or political interests there is another aspect of history all students should understand: often the ‘truth’ or the ‘right answer’ is in the eye of the beholder.

Unlike what is known as the ‘hard sciences’ where there are actual objective facts (i.e. 2+2=4, water freezes at 0? and boils at 100?) the discipline of history is very subjective in many respects.

For example: While all historians would agree that the Boston Massacre occurred on March 5, 1770, the question of who fired the first shot remains to this day a matter of historical controversy. Consider this excerpt from this article posted by the Boston Massacre Historical Society:

Private Hugh Montgomery was the first British soldier to fire in the Boston Massacre. According to many historic documents, he was also identified by many witnesses in the trial as the man who killed Crispus Attucks. As if this were not enough, it is also believed that it was Montgomery not Captain Preston who yelled “Damn you, fire!” to the troops.


According to the most accepted version of the event, at the peak of the confrontation between the crowd and the soldiers Montgomery was struck down onto the ground by a club wielded or thrown by someone from the mob. When he recovered to his feet, he fired his musket.

Can those of us living 244 years after this crucial event in American history say with absolute certainty that Private Hugh Montgomery fired the first shots of what became known as The Boston Massacre? With the author writing such things as “according to many historic documents” and “according to the most accepted version of the event” it appears that even the author is leaving room for the possibility s/he is wrong. What ‘revisions’ to the historical record would have to be made if historians at some point in the future discovered many other documents (assuming the documents could be authenticated in the first place) pointed the finger at another individual? What if, for whatever reason, ‘the most accepted version of the event’ later becomes the minority view and some other version becomes more accepted? Which version is correct?

All too often, your history textbook presents historical events in a neat and tidy way. All the items in controversy were resolved and the correct actions were taken.  As you can see in the above example, history is usually anything but neat and tidy and controversies remain (like who fired the first shot). This is why I hope you, the concerned students in the Jeffco School district will approach the material you receive in AP History with a healthy dose of skepticism, regardless of what the Board decides.

Before I close this letter, let me make just one movie and three book recommendations for those of you who wish to think more critically about history. Why this movie and these books? Because I have watched this movie and read these books. I am not going to recommend something I haven’t reviewed myself.

Movie recommendation – Vantage Point (PG-13) starring Dennis Quaid, Forest Whitaker, and Matthew Fox

Vantage Point is a wonderful fictional example of how an event is experienced/perceived differently based on the ‘vantage point’ of each individual (much like the above example of The Boston Massacre). In the movie, the same event (an assassination attempt) is shown several times but replayed from different points-of-view.

First book recommendation1984 by George Orwell

Many of you students have already read this book but I’m sure many haven’t. While 1984 is a work of fiction, the book demonstrates how governments with the aid of the media could manipulate the masses by redefining ‘truth’ and censoring history inconvenient to Big Brother into the ‘memory hole.’

Read this book and ask yourself: is the government, the media, the schools trying to manipulate me in a similar way?

Second book recommendationLies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen

This book won’t likely be one on the Jeffco Board’s recommended reading list. Loewen studied 18 high school American history textbooks and reveals that far too often the textbooks omit or sometimes outright lie about very important aspects of American history. In Loewen’s view, the truth is more important than ‘feel good’ history and blind patriotism. Loewen does his best to be objective but I do detect a somewhat progressive bias (therefore, I don’t agree with all of his conclusions). This book is for those who are seriously interested in thinking critically about history and questioning the answers we are supposed to accept as truth.

Third book recommendationLindbergh vs. Roosevelt: The Rivalry that Divided America by James P. Duffy

This book is an example of how political spin and smear campaigns can have lasting implications on the historical record. According to Duffy, FDR had a personal vendetta against Charles Lindbergh due mostly to Lindbergh’s opposition to FDR’s political agenda and U.S. involvement in WWII (a popular position at the time) prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Duffy certainly seems to have a conservative bias of some sort but backs up his assertions with the volume of reference material one would expect to write such a controversial thesis. The point of reading this book is not necessarily agree with the author or not but to understand that there are vandals who purposely distort history for their own reasons. This first casualty of war is the truth and I suspect that all too often the truth is never rediscovered.

In closing, I would just like to say that regardless of the curriculum changes, you student protesters have demonstrated that you are willing to challenge authority when you think the authorities are wrong. While this can be frustrating at times, you should understand that this is what citizenship and patriotism is really all about. Your parents should be very proud of you. Best of luck in all your future endeavors!

Cynical No More,

Stephen Littau