Earlier this year, College Board, the company in charge of SAT testing and Advanced Placement high school courses, updated the Course and Exam Description (CED) for their AP U.S. History (APUSH) course after revisions made in 2014 sparked serious conservative criticism. Predictably, the new CED also has a healthy slew of detractors, from both the political left and right. The tenacity of each sides’ judgments is fueled by an understanding of the high school history classroom as a political battleground; about 463,000 U.S. students sat for the APUSH examination last year, and what they’re being taught about the nation’s past is critical to the formation of their identities as young American citizens, and soon-to-be-voters. Observing what criticisms are being made and by whom yields an interesting conclusion: the controversy portrayed in the media has been primarily a political, rather than substantive, fight. Most historians and teachers who are working with the new CED feel that both documents are massive improvements to 2006’s framework because they stress the analytical and critical thinking skills necessary to understand American history.
The Controversy of the 2014 Revision
In 2006, frustrated APUSH teachers across the country complained that the course’s framework “did not provide sufficient time to immerse students in the major ideas, events, people, and documents of U.S. history, and that they were instead required to race through topics.” In response, College Board announced a complete overhaul of the CED. The idea was to refashion a high school framework that would more closely parallel a college-level survey course, and the redesign was carried out by a team of historians and scholars (the list of historians/scholars involved can be found on page vi of the linked attachment) from a variety of institutions across the nation. Instead of rewarding students for bulk memorization of names and dates, as the previous test had done, the new exam was designed to assess a student’s ability to think critically about historical sources and events and make a plausible argument based on different forms of evidence.
2006’s eight page outline of the course’s purpose, themes, and topics expanded into 2014’s revised one hundred six page write-up. The new outline included skills students should learn from the class, as well as expanded thematic learning objectives, and concept outlines separated by time period stretching from 1491 to the present — a substantial addition to a course that used to begin essentially with colonization and end around Reagan’s presidency. The new CED laid out specific learning goals and suggested examples for teachers to use to illustrate the course’s major topics and themes. It also gave history teachers a more concrete idea of what to expect on the AP examination at the end of the year.
That revision, however, caused an uproar.
College Board says that the CED “sparked significant public conversations among students, educators, historians, policymakers, and others about the teaching of U.S. history,” but a more accurate description of the national reaction would be “massive conservative backlash.” That response manifested itself in a successful vote to ban APUSH in Oklahoma, as well as a Georgia resolution passed in the State Senate condemning the framework. Texas, Colorado, and Tennessee were creating a new curricula to combat the College Board’s. Politicians were angry that the framework stated that the nation’s founders believed in “white superiority,” that many white Southerners “had pride in the institution of slavery,” and that it called former President Ronald Reagan’s conduct “bellicose,” among much else. Another major rallying point for conservative critics was the absence of the concept “American exceptionalism,” an idea messy enough to fill libraries with scholarly analysis, but nevertheless an important idea to teach and a driving force in the country’s history.
The Republican National Committee released a resolution in August lamenting the new “radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects” and demanding that Congress withhold any federal funding from College Board until the course and examination were rewritten “to accurately reflect U.S. history without a political bias and to respect the sovereignty of state standards.” The criticisms were led by retired APUSH teacher Larry Krieger, who blasted College Board’s “curricular coup” for failing to mention Benjamin Franklin or Dr. Martin Luther King, and “ignor[ing]the United States’ founding principles and their influence in inspiring the spread of democracy and galvanizing the movement to abolish slavery.” Peter Wood expressed concern in a widely-read piece the that the new framework did its job of mimicking a college course too well and allowed liberal academia to seep into high schools, poisoning young minds early. Ben Carson was so worried that the new CED focused on only the negative aspects of American history that he said, “most people when they finish that course they’d be ready to sign up for ISIS. This is what we are doing to the young people in our nation. We have got to stop this silliness. We have to stop crucifying ourselves.”
Basically, conservative criticism boiled down to two points, backed by two more deeply held beliefs. First and most importantly, the right felt that the new standards were far too critical of the United States and ought to be revised to focus on the nation’s achievements. College Board’s apparent total disregard for the founders and heroes of the country was taken as evidence that the new course would not inspire the next generation of American patriots. The criticism was driven by the belief that creating new patriots is the end-goal of U.S. history courses in high school — a view that the right (correctly) perceives is unpopular in academia.
Secondly, conservatives perceived College Board as a monopoly and a threat to each state’s sovereignty because the company was able to dictate curriculum that may not be in accordance with a state’s educational regulations. Underlying this concern, as Daniel Henninger observed in the Wall Street Journal, is a desire among conservative politicians for a return to a kind of American Federalism (which he uses to mean “state’s rights”). These conservatives disdain national policies which subvert state power, even if that policy is not dictated by the national government.
Amid the fuss, College Board stuck by its revision. Few of its detractors were history teachers or historians, or even seemed to understand what the framework was actually doing, as College Board pointed out in an open letter. They wrote, “Many of the comments we have heard about the framework reflect either a misunderstanding of U.S. history or a very limited faith in history teachers’ command of their subject matter.” For instance, they “did not think it necessary to specifically identify Martin Luther King, Jr., among the post-war ‘civil rights activists’ mentioned in the framework,” nor the Franklin among the “colonial elite.” As they said, “Any United States History course would of course include King as well as other major figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Dwight Eisenhower. These and many other figures of U.S. history did not appear in the previous AP framework, either, yet teachers have always understood the need to teach them.”
Students in Jefferson County, Colorado, reacted to the state school board’s attempt to rewrite the framework by protesting and striking. They interpreted the school board’s move as censorship and waved copies of George Orwell’s 1984, yelling, “America was founded on what you are trying to prevent!” College Board publicly supported the students, saying “these students recognize that the social order can — and sometimes must — be disrupted in the pursuit of liberty and justice. Civil disorder and social strife are at the patriotic heart of American history — from the Boston Tea Party to the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement. And these events and ideas are essential within the study of a college-level, AP U.S. History course.”
Despite these and other defenses, the College Board eventually decided to revise the framework. They rephrased almost every sentence to create a clearer document, less likely to be misinterpreted. The new CED was released July 30 2015, and has begun its life in high school classrooms already. Nevertheless, the most outspoken conservative critics have continued to blast the document, and now liberal critics, especially vocal on Twitter and other social media sites, are attacking College Board for caving into political pressure and watering down history to present a more agreeable story. But, believe it or not, most people who reviewed the document are happy with the changes.
The 2015 Revision
The new revision addressed almost every reasonable complaint that had been raised, rephrasing each statement in the document on top of adding and clarifying the structure and goals of the course. Reagan’s “bellicose” speeches evolved into “speeches” and a “buildup of nuclear and conventional arms.” George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin all get specifically mentioned, as does Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and U.S. military servicemen and women are given more space in the document. The Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and even Federalist papers also get a mention. The “productive role of free enterprise, entrepreneurship, and innovation in shaping U.S. history” have been added, rounding out a number of sections. For instance, the discussion of the Gilded Age in the 2014 framework which focused on labor exploitation and the growth of monopoly now includes a section on the innovations in management and industrial design, the skeleton of modern industry. That kind of change was applauded by critics from both sides for making a more neutral and inclusive document.
In fact, the changes pleased all but the most outspoken of conservative critics. The National Review reported: “Surprise — The New AP U.S. History Framework Is Scrupulously Fair-Minded” and its conservative authors described the new CED as “not just better — it’s flat-out good. It doesn’t only address the most egregious examples of bias and politicization; rather, nearly every line appears to have been rewritten in a more measured, historically responsible manner.” Jeremy Stern, one of the detractors of the 2014 framework, wrote “I have no illusions that they will satisfy people who have turned it into an ideological war, but the rational objections have been satisfied.”
So what are some conservatives still angry about? Well, one camp is worried that the new test will be too easy because it focuses on historical thinking rather than factual knowledge. That faction is further concerned that being soft on students is part of a conspiracy both to make College Board more money and indoctrinate students. Stanley Kurtz, one of the most outspoken critics of both documents, still doesn’t think enough has been added regarding American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism remains a divisive issue. The topic had no mention in 2014, but in 2015 College Board added a learning theme on American national identity and unity, which “focuses on how and why definitions of American and national identity and values have developed, as well as on related topics such as citizenship, constitutionalism, foreign policy, assimilation, and American exceptionalism.” That’s the only mention of the word in the entire, 147 page document, but that inclusion set off a powder keg of liberal anger across Twitter and social media. The headline from Mashable sums up the feeling of most critics: “College Board gives in and adds ‘American exceptionalism’ to AP U.S. history.” Similar articles bemoaning the “conservative victory” of the revision were published all around the internet, but these voices have mainly fallen off because, as K. Tsianina Lomawaima, Mvskoke/Creek Nation professor of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University pointed out, “the curriculum “doesn’t say to celebrate American exceptionalism… It just includes it as a topic.”
Another change that has angered liberal critics is the specific wording of the CED. Quartz, a blog owned by Atlantic Media Co. (the publisher of The Atlantic, National Journal, and Government Executive) published a popular opinion piece chastising College Board not only for caving to political pressure, but more significantly “gloss[ing]over the country’s racial past.” The author, a reporter named Jake Flanagin, is concerned that the new framework is “stunting students with warped, sugar-coated notions of social and political history.” To get a sense of the changes, I’ve created and attached a couple of images that show the progression of the framework when talking about two topics: first European contact with Native American Indians as well as the Constitution (I recommend viewing on a desktop).
Basically, what Flanagin and other liberal detractors — journalists, reporters, and politicians — are honing in on are changes that historians and academics have lauded for de-politicizing the document. The changes in language that you can see in the images above allow teachers more freedom to cover the topics without having to accept analysis and conclusions written into the 2014 document. The 2015 revisers attempted to strip the document down to base facts so that each high school teacher would be the arbiter of their class’ lesson plans. Gone were what was seen as commentary or argumentation, and in its place was left a solid skeleton. As James R. Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association wrote, “It’s not a curriculum, these are not lesson plans…This provides teachers with the framework they need to enable students to disagree with one another intelligently.”
So Why Does It All Matter?
More than anything, the controversy here has been merely political. The teachers and academics who called for the initial revision of the 2006 edition saw the 2014 edition and thought, more or less, that it was pretty good. They saw the 2015 framework and felt that it was even better. Most historians have been accepting of the changes because both of the documents are significant improvements over 2006’s curriculum, but more importantly because historians have a different conception of how history should be taught in American classrooms than politicians and journalists.
Each side’s stance reflects not only a disagreement in how to teach history, but a set of fundamentally different beliefs as to what history is, and why it is taught. For instance, as I stated above, conservative criticism of the first document was really founded on the idea that portraying America too negatively would inhibit AP U.S. teachers from creating the next generation of American patriots. There are two underlying assumptions here: first off, U.S. history ought to be making patriots, and secondly, the best way to inspire patriotism is by teaching the greatness of a nation or glossing over the more questionable events. Similarly, liberal critics of the second document wanted it to tell the story in a way that more closely aligned with their analysis of what has been important in history. They applauded the 2014 document because it did lean left.
Behind all the controversy is a mutual understanding that a citizen’s conception of this nation’s past shapes them politically. There is no way to campaign for public office without appealing to American traditions, and different understandings of those traditions create different political opinions. History’s place in some debates is obvious (should we take down Confederate flags? Are we talking about states’ rights or slavery?), but it is equally important where less apparent (how open should our borders be? Are we a refuge for the tired and hungry, yearning to breathe free, or a new iteration of the nation of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1789?) The AP U.S. history course is the survey of American history for almost half a million students a year, many of whom may never take another history course in their lives. Politicians see half a million voters whose political views could be shaped, and so it’s no wonder their passions are inflamed.
But all that it takes to see why academics, historians, and the test’s designers aren’t wrapped up in the anger is a glance at the list of goals included in the CED, from 2014 or 2015. The latter breaks down the skill of “Historical Thinking” into separate parts, each then briefly described, including:
- Analyzing Evidence: the ability to describe, select, and evaluate relevant evidence about the past from diverse sources… the interplay between content of a source and authorship, point of view, purpose, audience, and format or medium…
- Interpretation: … to describe, select, and evaluate the different ways historians interpret the past [taking into account]how the particular circumstances and contexts in which individual historians work and write shape[s]their interpretations of past events and historical evidence.
- Comparison: … to identify, compare, and evaluate multiple perspectives…
- Contextualization: … to connect historical events and processes to specific circumstances…
- Synthesis: … to develop an understanding of the past by making meaningful and persuasive historical connections…
- Argumentation: … to create an argument and support it using relevant historical evidence
… as well as causation, patterns of continuity and change over time, and periodization.
These are skills that equip a student with the analytic and critical skills to understand and challenge the narratives around them. Students are supposed to learn what different groups have thought throughout history and how those beliefs fit into their context. For instance, students may be asked to review letters from slaveholders to understand how they conceived of themselves as ethical, Christian men and women, rather than memorize what states passed which Acts to protect slavery in which years. That kind of historical work takes creative empathy, and from the understanding of different historical contexts, follows a more attentive and nuanced understanding of the world we find ourselves in today.
A history class that fulfills the functions enumerated by the College Board, regardless of the political slant of the teacher, is a successful history course. A framework without bias allows more teachers to construct great history courses that they can teach well to inspire historical thinking in their students. In that regard, the 2015 CED shines. It allows teachers the freedom to structure their class the way that they want. To some, this is a scary thought. It means that teachers are freer to narrativize American history according to their political alignment — both conservative and liberal histories. But this is where the framework really shines: the essence of historical thinking, what College Board is rewarding students for, is the ability to analyze, question, and challenge the narratives that they are being taught. That means in any class, regardless of the teacher’s slant, the successful students are the ones who can comprehend that there are more ways to think about the past, and the present.
It may sound odd, especially coming from a history student, but this point rings true: what high school students are being taught specifically doesn’t matter nearly as much as how they are being taught to think about it. To use the cliché, high school is not about learning facts, it’s about learning how to think. High school history courses are no exception. Reporters and politicians are angry that a narrativization of American history is being taught that runs counter to their own interpretation, but historians are happy that the CED explicitly lays out that students should challenge that narrative. We as Americans want (hopefully) a responsible, thoughtful, and educated citizenry, and we don’t get that by forcing kids to memorize everything that has ever happened in the past, especially when we’ve all got computers in our pockets to look it up anyway. We get that by teaching students how to think deeply and critically about what they are learning, and the new AP U.S. framework rewards that kind of class.
Dan Ruprecht is a junior studying history.