APUSH class simulations should be reconsidered

AP U.S. History (APUSH) is easily one of the most important classes I have taken in high school. APUSH has sparked my love for history to greater lengths than any other class has; it has helped make my ambition to be a history teacher obvious. I gladly and willingly participate in every class activity, simulation, and discussion. However, I have come to the conclusion that some of our in-class simulations may be problematic in that they promote hateful racial ideals.

One of the very first activities in APUSH is a simulation of the U.S. constitutional convention. Each student was assigned a state to represent during a debate on whether or not slaves should be included in population count in regards to Congressional seats. Our teacher explained that delegates representing slave states should argue that slaves should be included and those representing free states should argue that they should not, with the goal for each state being greater federal power. The competition took away from the fact that we were debating the worth of a human being. No one argued that slaves should be counted as part of the population because they deserved basic human rights. Most argued that it cost money for the state to support them so they should therefore receive support from the House.  

AP students are competitive in nature. If you give them a challenge, not many of them will stop and analyze the things they are actually saying. Most will say anything to win.

As I say this, I take full responsibility for my actions. I’m completely guilty of blindly participating in mildly racist APUSH simulations. I was one of four students that participated in a debate over whether the U.S. should annex the Philippines. Our debate was said to have taken place in the early 1900s, so I bluntly included the idea that Asians were inferior to the Anglo-Saxon race in my argument.

The issue is not that our activities are set in a time of extreme racial tension, it’s that we do little to acknowledge how problematic our statements and actions are. Before we do any activity that involves racist views, my teacher gives a disclaimer that the things we say shouldn’t accurately reflect our own views; they should reflect the views of someone living in the time period we are simulating. While this disclaimer is important, it doesn’t do enough. We are allowed to be racist in activities that we barely focus on race. Race is a component in every simulation, but it is never the main idea we perpetuate; it’s merely the side effect of our real intention. The solution is to still play these activities but instead put a greater emphasis on race.

APUSH does what most history classes do. It does not do enough to touch on the history behind oppression and discrimination in the United States, and this is perpetuated by our in-class simulations. In order for these simulations to be less problematic, they must put a greater emphasis on our hateful speech.

6 thoughts on “APUSH class simulations should be reconsidered

  • March 18, 2019 at 10:10 pm
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    This is really misleading, your previous title was much more incendiary and polarizing and I think that’s the reason for the initial outcry. I do appreciate your examination of racism in the class but I feel that, as a fellow WOC, this class does place the appropriate emphasis on racism. We understand the racist motivations behind the actions that America has taken in the past. If we wanted to dwell more on our racist past, we can design a class called “Racism Through the Ages”. APUSH is designed to teach American history, which by its nature is extremely racist, but racism is not promoted as your previous title suggested.

  • March 18, 2019 at 5:37 am
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    Dear Editor,

    Regarding the opinion piece entitled “APUSH class simulation prone to promoting hateful racial ideas,” I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the concerns brought forth by Ms. Siler. To begin with, students in all of my classes are encouraged to voice their opinions, and I welcome thoughtful critique of my curriculum and teaching methods and am pleased that Ms. Siler has started a dialogue that will lead to my continued reflection of my practices. I feel strongly that experiential learning, such as the simulations that take place in all of my classes, plays a valuable role in my students’ level of engagement with the curriculum as well as assists in their understanding of the content.
    As the teacher of this course, I do take exception to the title of the piece as it asserts that the simulations conducted in the class promote racism. In my opinion, these simulations do not promote racism but instead encourage the participants to consider these arguments from the time and provide a window into the past to aid in their understanding of the time period.
    The opinion piece has provided me the opportunity to reflect on how the debriefing of the simulations at the completion of the activity is handled with the students and for that, I thank Ms. Siler. In the future, more emphasis will be placed on putting the arguments into context as a part of the activity.

    Sincerely,

    Kathleen Cassidy
    AP US History Teacher

  • March 16, 2019 at 8:27 pm
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    Hey, a very interesting and intriguing article, but I have to disagree with your overall argument.

    First off, I agree with you to the extent that we, as students, should be mindful of what we say. However, as you mentioned, history isn’t all rainbows and roses. To be able to fully understand it, we must examine and debate all viewpoints and opinions in an accurate and unbiased context without censorship nor editing. Simulations do just that–they are a valuable and vital part to our learning experience. These simulations allowed me to immerse myself in history and gave me a chance to understand what I was learning in a multidimensional context.

    I take issue with a few of your points:

    “No one argued that slaves should be counted as part of the population because they deserved basic human rights.” This wasn’t argued in the simulation because it wasn’t an argument used back then. It’s an unfortunate and horrible fact that people (North and South) simply saw slaves as property. People argued about money instead because it was more relevant and accurate in a historical context.

    As for your “Race is a component in every simulation, but it is never the main idea we perpetuate…” argument: again, race is a “component” now (in the examples you brought up) because it was a “component” back then. Race was a scapegoat used to gain more power and perpetuate other agendas. For example, race was merely a facet on how to delegate Representatives in the House and one of the reasons used to support the annexation of the Philippines. (As you know, the 3/5th compromise was also an attempt for the South to gain more power in the federal government. The annexation of the Philippines was also about establishing dominance in Asia in a time when America had to compete with other Western powers). The simulations are merely reflecting these historical facts.

    We can’t scream “racism” at everything that we come across, especially in this case. These simulations aren’t meant to be racist or hurtful in any way: in fact, they are meant to educate us on the facets of American history that were, unfortunately, racist. If “racism” is what you’re taking away from these educational simulations rather than “what can we learn from this”, “how did this affect the course of history”, or “how can we use these lessons to change/rectify these wrongdoings so that we may never repeat them again”, I honestly think you’re missing the point.

    Besides, as Brian mentioned, we are mature young adults who have researched these topics thoroughly and are capable of understanding that bigotry and racism is inherently wrong.

    I appreciate that you’re bringing up this point though. It’s important for us to share our respective views on the curriculum.

  • March 15, 2019 at 5:54 am
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    Hey Katy, I think this was an intriguing topic and brave to write about. It’s definitely a conversation worth having: to identify the problem then work toward a solution with teachers. My personal opinion is that people don’t want to have this conversation because it makes them feel deeply uncomfortable. I’ve heard plenty of APUSH students talk about the lack of concentration on racial injustice in the class, but not as specific as this. It was also interesting to compare your experience in APUSH with my experience in Afrocentric; a class where the core focus of everything is to discuss racial injustice and how it has impacted the course of American events.
    The article is articulate and well written. Excellent job!

  • March 14, 2019 at 11:11 am
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    Counter argument incoming:

    First off, you talk about the Constitutional Convention activity, and say that APUSH students are really competitive. I agree with that, from experience, I have found myself trying to gain the upper hand on other students during many of our activities. But then you go on to say that we would not stop to analyze what we are saying, and would just say anything to win the competition. I’m not sure what you mean by that because if you want to win at a competition you need to know all the facts to know what exactly you’re saying. You can’t ace a test without knowing all about the topic, just like you can’t win a competition or debate without knowing all about the topic. Obviously any APUSH student who is smart would read up on the topic before the competition, Everyone read up on the discrimination slaves faced at the time during the Constitutional Convention, sure it is racist, and you say we don’t talk about it enough, but this is a fast paced US history class that you signed up for, which doesn’t have time to touch on every single part about the time period. I’m not sure about you but I’ve learned about the effects of racism in history last year during Modern World History, CCG, and in my American Literature class; everyone already knows how bad racism is. The point of this class is to learn about the US as a whole in history, if I’m not mistaken, and you’re saying you want spend more time on the racist aspects of American history when we barely have enough time to learn about the history of the US as a whole?

    You also mention our teacher giving a disclaimer before every activity we do, and how important it is. I agree, this is important, we need to know how messed up society was back then compared to nowadays. But then you say that racism is a side effect of our real intentions in simulations, which seems to contradict your argument. If that is true, you would be saying that the US annexed the Philippines just for economic reasons, that the US govt passed the Chinese Exclusion Act for some non-racist reason, that the US put its Japanese citizens into concentration camps during World War II for some non-racist reason, and that the US enslaved African Americans just for economic prosperity. Of course this is all not true, the US annexed the Philippines, passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, imprisoned the Japanese, and practiced their dirty institution of slavery all for racist ideals. Now I know you know this because you seem to be one of the smarter people in the class, so I don’t really know why you wrote this article, if you wanted to touch more on racism in your history class, you should’ve taken Afrocentric.

    APUSH students aren’t ignorant, we’ve all learned about the horrible effects of racism before, there’s no need to shove it down our throats in APUSH.

    Brian Kinsley

  • March 14, 2019 at 8:02 am
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    Dear Editor,

    I read Katie Siler’s opinion piece APUSH class simulations prone to promoting hateful racial ideas, published on March 11, with both interest and a bit of defensiveness. I appreciate her mostly measured examination of some of the activities in the US History classes. History and the teaching of history are subjects which, must by definition, be open to revision and interrogation, and Ms. Siler’s critique does this. I expect this column with provoke further discussion among students and teachers. Though there are several points in her article to which I would like to respond, my primary objection to the column is in both the headline and the last line of the first paragraph. It is misleading and incendiary to claim that by examining events in the past that involve harmful racial and racist attitudes and actions, through certain activities, the teachers are promoting the the views under examination.

    Sincerely,

    Jeffrey Goldstein
    AP US History Teacher, Castro Valley High School

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