APUSH: The New, New, New History

Peter Wood

The History Wars continue. The latest battlefront has emerged over the College Board’s promulgation of new Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) standards. The new APUSH pushes aside an old, five-page, rather bland, and apolitical outline of topics to be covered by high school history teachers and replaces it with an eighty-one-page disquisition. To the critics, including me, the new APUSH promotes a decidedly left-wing view of American history. It is tendentiously political.

From Vietnam to La Pietra

But there are differences of opinion about that and it is worth putting the new, “new history” in historical context. Like most of our current cultural contretemps, this new history is rooted in the 1960s. The history profession in that decade turned to new topics and new methods, but most fatefully embraced a new attitude. A significant number of historians declared themselves “radicals” and, under that banner, discarded the search for objective truth in favor of a commitment to political action. The radicals were initially opposed to the institutional norms of academic history, but soon found their place within it. The Radical Historians’ Organization, for example, was established in 1973, but became part of the American Historical Association in 1989.1

Perhaps the opening shot of the History Wars was fired by Eugene Genovese, who at the American Historical Society (AHA) meeting in 1969 surprised his fellow New Left historians by denouncing a resolution against the Vietnam War. Genovese was an ardent opponent of the war, but it turned out he was no less an ardent opponent, as he put it at the AHA meeting, of “the cynical conclusion that all scholarship is subjective and ‘ideological.’”2 He opposed the attempt to make the study of history a form of political action. Genovese prevailed in the vote on the anti-Vietnam War resolution at hand, 647 to 611, but in the longer run, his view lost. In the years that followed, the AHA became a reliable forum for promoting left-wing political views.

The second great battle of the History Wars was the fight over the National History Standards (NHS), which began in fall 1994 when Lynne Cheney denounced those standards in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.3 Cheney’s view carried special weight because the standards were the culmination of a project she had authorized in 1992 as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The standards were supposed to set out what students in grades 5 through 12 should learn about American history. But Cheney was disappointed in the results, which she found to embody political correctness and a “revisionist” view that was anti-Western in character and radically deemphasized important matters such as the Constitution.

Cheney initiated a long and very public dispute with one of the co-authors of the new standards, UCLA professor Gary Nash. In January 1995, the U.S. Senate voted 99 to 1 to reject the Nash-authored standards. Nash himself claimed a degree of vindication in the number of schools that accepted his standards anyway, and he went on to publish History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (2000), in which he defended his version of the NHS.

The Cheney-led defeat of these standards was a definite blow to leftist historians who champion the view that American history is best studied from the perspective of how the United States emerged as an aggressive world power based on capitalist exploitation of vulnerable populations at home and abroad.

As the dust from the NHS battle settled, the bedraggled partisans of radical history began a series of meetings in La Pietra near Florence, Italy, where New York University (NYU) owns a villa on a fifty-seven-acre estate bequeathed to it by Sir Harold Acton in 1994. The conferences were held from 1997 to 2000 under the auspices of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), and culminated in a 2000 report drafted by NYU historian Thomas Bender on behalf of the seventy-eight historian participants, The La Pietra Report: A Report to the Profession.4 The major theme of the report is that United States history needed to be recast in a global perspective. The report’s creators explicitly reject what they depict as the supposed old habit of American historians who “treated the nation as self-contained and undifferentiated.” By contrast, the new history

recognizes the historicity of different forms of solidarity and the historical character of the project of nation-making promises to better prepare students and the public to understand and to be effective in the world we live in and will live in.

“Different forms of solidarity” is code language for race, gender, and class. But these emphases are not all there is to the La Pietra Report. Just as important is a new emphasis on “larger, transnational contexts, processes, and identities.” This work involves “phenomena [that] must be resuscitated in larger contexts because the movements of people, money, knowledge, and things are not contained by single political units.” Translation: we must refocus American history on the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Bender emerged as the leading voice of the radical historians who regrouped after the defeat of the NHS. The La Pietra Report, in turn, was well-received in a number of places including, as it happened, with the College Board.

Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has traced what happened next.5 In 2002, Bender edited a collection of the La Pietra conference papers (Rethinking American History in a Global Age) and OAH established a collaboration with the College Board with the aim of reshaping the AP U.S. History standards. In 2003, OAH and Advanced Placement formed a Joint Advisory Board on Teaching the U.S. History Survey Course.6 The new board assumed the task of bringing APUSH into alignment with the La Pietra Report. The cochairman of the AP U.S. History Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee was Ted Dickson, who was also a member of the joint panel. As Kurtz notes, the ties between La Pietra and the College Board thickened:

In June of 2004, just as the Joint OAH/AP Advisory Board was searching for ways to reshape the teaching of U.S. history along “transnational” lines, Thomas Bender was invited to address hundreds of readers gathered to grade the essay portion of that year’s AP U.S. History Exam. Bender’s talk, still available at the AP Central website, reflects his political agenda. Speaking in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq, Bender argues that historians who offer narratives of American exceptionalism “bear some responsibility” for reinforcing “a unilateralist understanding of the United States in the world.” That attitude, says Bender, must be fought.7

Imperialist America

The line from La Pietra to APUSH is fairly straight, but while the La Pietra Report and its related documents are entirely open in their hostility to traditional approaches to American history, the College Board has been more guarded. APUSH’s public documents are reticent about the intellectual origins of the standards. The official line is simply that the College Board has brought APUSH up-to-date and ensured that it matches what is now actually taught in college-level U.S. history survey courses.

That explanation, though evasive, is not necessarily inaccurate. Clearly a great many college U.S. history courses have been captured by historians who see American history pretty much the way Bender and the La Pietra conferees see it. But is this really what we should aim for in high school AP courses?

The connections between APUSH and La Pietra stand out mostly in the substance of the new APUSH that embodies with fidelity the La Pietra program of reconstructing the idea of American history as a narrative of the emergence of a new kind of nation with a coherent identity of its own. Rather APUSH projects a view of the United States as one nation among many and driven by the same kinds of interests as all the others. In the vernacular, APUSH aims at demolishing claims of American exceptionalism. Bender’s 2006 book, A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History, captures the spirit of this enterprise. America moves from being Governor Winthrop’s “city on a hill” to one node in the unending competition among empires.

APUSH embraces this vision in several ways. First, it recenters the story of the American Founding. In this new version, the key event is the French and Indian War (1754–1760), the result of which was the displacement of France as the rival hegemon to England in North America. With the defeat of France, the British system of capitalism was free to dominate the continent. Unlike the French (and the Dutch and other minor colonial powers), the British preferred a model of high immigration. The French preferred a lighter colonial footprint and an emphasis on trade with the native peoples. The British preferred direct rule, competition, and armed conflict. The British model of capitalism, in this APUSH view, was also inextricably linked to the British sense of hierarchy, class privilege, and racism. The net result of the British victory over the French was the supremacy of an economic class system based on violence to outsiders and oppression of the weak.

In this light, the American Revolution is little more than a replacement of one ruling class by another. The underlying system—capitalism and class hierarchy underwritten by chattel slavery—was unchanged by all that fuss from 1776 through the presidency of George Washington. Thus the new APUSH radically diminishes the attention paid to the American Founding. The Founding is, to be sure, included in the new standards, but the degree of attention is astonishingly slight compared to any previous overview of American history.

The focus on capitalism and class hierarchy doesn’t stop with the eighteenth century. It is the scaffolding of the APUSH enterprise and continues through the nine periods into which the standards divide American history. Not that APUSH announces this as its thematic intention. It says nothing of the kind. One has to read through the standards with close attention to what they say and how they are developed while keeping in mind the many important things that are left out or are presented in a highly slanted fashion to get the new APUSH narrative.

If we recognize this recentering of American history as the key, the other shifts that are part of the new APUSH fall into place. These include:

  • The depersonalization of American accomplishment, in which major figures ranging from Benjamin Franklin and James Madison to Martin Luther King Jr. go unmentioned.

  • The emphasis on supposedly overlooked peoples and individuals selected to give more prominence to marginalized categories, e.g., James Madison is out but Chief Little Turtle is in; Dr. Joseph Warren, the hero of Bunker Hill, is out, but Mercy Otis Warren is in.

  • The elision of key interpretative debates about American history. How fundamental was slavery to the success of the American republic? Are we a nation founded on universal principles or just another political entity struggling to get the better of other political entities? To the extent APUSH acknowledges questions like these, it has settled answers built in, e.g., slavery was pivotal, universal principles are empty.

  • Progressivism in all its forms has been a great and good thing. For example, APUSH recognizes no downside to the New Deal, or even a basis for legitimate criticism of policies that many historians now believe lengthened and deepened the Great Depression.

  • The New England-centric story of America’s origin as a nation is radically downplayed while the rise of the slaveholding southern states is made the focal point of American history.

  • The religious history of the nation is treated as incidental. For that matter, the intellectual history and artistic flourishing of America get short shrift. APUSH is not exactly Marxist in its outlook, but it is relentlessly materialistic.

APUSH has one other major feature that is less content than pedagogy. The APUSH architects declare that their aim is to turn students into “apprentice historians.”


APUSH is academic self-dramatization. It is less about teaching American history as a body of knowledge than about how fascinating it is to think about what it might mean to learn American history.

The declared purpose of the project is to turn students into “apprentice historians” who concentrate on developing “historical thinking skills” such as “chronological reasoning,” “comparison and contextualization,” “crafting historical arguments,” and “historical interpretation and synthesis.” These are all wholesome goals that are embedded in any college-level history course. But to develop them, a student must first acquire command of historical narrative and salt away a fair amount of historic fact. Before you get to be an “apprentice historian,” you have to pass through the stage of novice.

But APUSH, in a typical fit of postmodern narcissism, bypasses the novice stage. The student is invited to think of himself as smarter, more learned, and more sophisticated than he could possibly be. APUSH lays out a temptation. Eat this fruit and your eyes will be opened.

We are already faced with a generation of students who know little but imagine they know much. The cultural shift that has brought this about is a larger topic, but it is important to note that APUSH accelerates it. Instead of expecting students to achieve a certain level of mastery over material, it expects them to hone “skills.” As a practical matter these skills cannot really advance without students mastering some material, too. It cannot be an either/or situation. But APUSH goes very far indeed in deemphasizing the need to learn substantive material and instead to focus on “crafting historical arguments” and the like.

APUSH also includes seven “thematic learning objectives,” that are “topics of historical inquiry to explore throughout the AP U.S. History course.”8 These are “identity”; “work, exchange, and technology”; “peopling”; “politics and power”; “America in the world”; “environment and geography—physical and human”; and “ideas, beliefs, and culture.” These objectives have some merit but they are also rather slanted. One might think the thematic learning of American history would give scope for some other issues: ideas about political freedom, property, physical security, freedom of movement, entrepreneurship, invention, political representation, the rule of law, and the concept of personal rights. These are not necessarily precluded under the APUSH rubric, but they are at best reached indirectly. Meanwhile, categories such as “identity” lead directly to subcategories such as ID-7, “Analyze how changes in class identity and gender roles have related to economic, social, and cultural transformations since the late 19th century.”9

APUSH’s apologists present this as helping students to push boldly the boundaries of knowledge and to discover new frontiers. But the boundary-pushing is, in fact, prescribed and preformatted.

Students are walked carefully down a path that leads to the conclusion that racism, capitalism, oppression, hierarchy, inequality, and a false sense of exceptionalism are at the bottom of everything important in American history.

APUSH in this sense is about manipulating the sensibilities of students by playing on their vanity. It teaches them they can invent themselves by playing out the script of resentment against authority. The authority of history can be challenged easily enough by portraying the past as a story of the privileged beggaring the weak. There is enough truth to that story to make it seem to the unwary to be all there is.

Teachers, Texts, and Tests

The defenders of APUSH correctly point out that AP teachers have a good deal of latitude in how they teach the course. Usually this includes some say over the choice of textbooks. In this light, how harmful could the APUSH standards be? If a high school history teacher believes that APUSH does not sufficiently emphasize the American Revolution, nothing stands in the way of his including more material on and devoting more class time to it.

Actually, several important things do stand in the way. First, the textbooks must align to the APUSH standards. The textbook that now most clearly aligns with APUSH is the eighth edition of America’s History: For the AP® Course (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014), by James A. Henretta, Eric Handeraker, Rebecca Edwards, and Robert O. Self—commonly referred to as “Henretta.” Henretta is a professor emeritus from the University of Maryland whose view of his profession is summarized in a video posted by his publisher where Henretta explains:

We want [students] to come away with the ability to think carefully and critically about their own society. So that when I teach history I am teaching about the uses of power, the existence of class, and other differences in the character of culture.10

As he says this, the camera cuts from Henretta speaking to photographs of a street protest against the World Trade Organization; a group of Blackfoot Indians in ceremonial costume standing with Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier at a meeting around the time of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act; and a turn-of-the-century New York City crowded with immigrant peddlers and shoppers.

An in-depth review of Henretta would be welcome, but the book is clearly positioned by both its main author and its publisher as La Pietra-style American history.

The other consideration is that the students in APUSH are preparing to take the APUSH examination. The exam reflects the APUSH standards and nothing else. A teacher who departs from the standards to teach other material puts his students at risk of doing poorly on the exam. Some teachers might choose this riskier path, but sooner or later they will have to defend their choices to disappointed students and their parents. Most teachers, whatever their private misgivings about APUSH, will surely conform to the standards.

The Opposition Takes Shape

The drafters of the new APUSH learned the lessons of the Cheney/Nash collision on the NHS. Nash’s mistake was his openness about his intentions. When they moved from Nashville to Bendertown, the proponents of the radically anti-exceptional reading of American history adopted a much more circumspect tone and manner. And they almost got away with it. Nearly two years passed between 2012, when the new APUSH standards were officially made available for the public, and 2014, when outside observers began to take a critical look at what was in them. That honor goes to a former high school AP U.S. history teacher, Larry Krieger, who began to post urgent editorials against APUSH on websites such the Heartland Institute in late spring 2014. Krieger was joined by an attorney, Jane Robbins, from the American Principles Project, who co-authored some of these pieces.

Krieger and Robbins inveighing against APUSH, of course, did not carry the weight of Lynne Cheney writing in the Wall Street Journal. No doubt the College Board did not sense a real threat. But in June 2014, John Leo at the Manhattan Institute sent me a copy of one of Krieger and Robbins’s essays and asked me if there was anything to it. I hadn’t heard of the new APUSH, so I looked it up on the College Board website and began reading. And it struck me that Krieger and Robbins were indeed onto something. In early July, I published on the NAS website, “A Preliminary Report on the New APUSH.” And I began writing to prominent historians urging them to read APUSH for themselves and to respond to me in writing. I also called on my friend (and fellow anthropologist) Stanley Kurtz to see if I could interest him in the project. Stanley is among the most industrious researchers I know and he was soon deep into the details of how APUSH came about. Among other things, he surfaced the La Pietra backstory.

APUSH has since become a significant public and political issue and one with sufficient momentum that more events of significance are sure to occur before this article in Academic Questions appears. For the reader who is just becoming acquainted with the controversy, this can serve as a primer. While I was still coaxing historians to read APUSH, the story was summoning attention in other quarters. In August 2014 the Republican National Committee passed a resolution condemning APUSH. The Texas Board of Education took a similar step in September. A school board in Colorado voted to condemn APUSH and was met with a teacher-orchestrated student boycott that adroitly played on the theme that the school board, not the College Board, was suborning history. In grassroots conservatives circles in which activism against the Common Core is widespread and heated, APUSH has become a second front.

By the time the Texas Board of Education got involved, the College Board recognized it had a growing public relations problem. It has handled the situation fairly well. It hired a prominent conservative to go around and speak to other conservatives with the message that APUSH is wholesome and that the worries are overblown. The College Board also professed its willingness to listen carefully to criticisms and make adjustments in APUSH where warranted.

The question for critics is whether this professed openness should be understood as a genuine willingness to reconsider the premises of APUSH, or mostly as an attempt to distract critics by making superficial changes. My own view is that APUSH is so profoundly rooted in the La Pietra view of the American past that it is hard to imagine that it could be saved by mere revision.

There is a species of criticism that argues that “worldview” determines most of what people think. I am not especially attracted by that approach, which invests nearly everything in the gestalt of unreasoned presuppositions and hardly anything in the human capacity to learn from new experience and to be startled into reconsideration of one’s previous views. But let’s give “worldview” its due. There is plainly a gulf. On one side stand those who see American history as a departure from the old ways in which nations pursued their interests, the new nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as one of our notable statesmen put it. On the other side stand those, exasperated by such claims of American exceptionalism, who see mainly a nation that has grown up like most others as a rapacious pursuer of the interests of its wealthiest and most powerful members and as an exploiter of everyone else.

There could and should be ways to allow proponents of both views to tell their stories. But it is not entirely clear that both stories should be combined in equal parts in high school AP U.S. history courses. After all, these courses will be for almost all of the half-million students who take them each year the last time they will ever take a survey course on American history. Even if they attend one of the rare colleges that now require a U.S. history survey course, they will place out of it. APUSH is the last opportunity our country has to tell its own story. Do we really want to take that occasion to emphasize that America was rotten from the start? That the best that can be said for this country is that the oppressed occasionally stood up to the oppressors and secured a modicum of relief?

It isn’t hard to find people who answer those two questions with ringing affirmations. The challenge for an organization such as the National Association of Scholars is to give a compelling explanation of why the right answers are firm rejections of this “worldview” or whatever it is. It would be nice if the word “anti-American” was still available to describe this ideological position, but “anti-American” is too freighted with the cargo of older ideological disputes to help us much in this situation. Clearly the proponents of APUSH deeply dislike much of what has been understood as traditional American values, but they imagine their own American alternative, wrapped up with “transnational” themes, global consciousness, diversity, sustainability, and so on. Their view isn’t so much anti-American as post-American. They have moved on.

The National Association of Scholars has been assembling articles by historians offering their own assessments of APUSH. These include KC Johnson, Joseph Kett, Jonathan Bean, Robert Paquette, John Chalberg, and Kevin Brady. Some agree with the criticisms I have presented here, some have developed rather different criticisms, and one—Jonathan Bean—dismisses the criticisms as “a tempest in a teapot.”11 These articles should be read together as laying the foundation for reasoned debate on an important topic. There are also a growing number of assessments by scholars in other venues, among the most important of which is Ron Radosh’s essay published early in the controversy, “The Left’s Attempt to Institutionalize the Rewriting of US History.”12 Radosh pays particular attention to APUSH’s treatment of the New Deal and to President Reagan’s confrontation with the Soviet Union. The defenders of APUSH, of course, have not fallen silent in the face of these criticisms. One place to find robust APUSH apologetics is the History News Network.13 Another useful summary is Nicholas M. Gallagher’s “Facts Are Stubborn Things,” published in The American Interest.14

The new APUSH went into effect in the nation’s classrooms in fall 2014. Those who think it is seriously flawed or who believe it thoroughly misconceived are therefore fighting from a position of great disadvantage. The College Board has a fully developed program, having set out its standards, developed its test, trained many of the participating teachers, and identified the textbooks that align wholly or mostly with the standards. APUSH is, in short, well on its way to being an institutionalized reality backed by one of the most powerful organizations in higher education and supported by textbook publishers as well as virtually all the major professional associations.

Does it make sense in such conditions to raise awkward questions about the quality of the standards and the worthiness of the whole enterprise? The alternative, as I see it, is to make peace with something that will do lasting damage to the education of many of the nation’s most intellectually talented young people and damage to the nation as a whole. APUSH is essentially a curriculum that artfully aims to erase ideas, arguments, and facts that fail to comport with a narrative of America as a story of endless exploitation. We do not need to counter this with a flag-waving celebration of all that is good in America. What we need is a survey of American history that captures achievements and failures and gives full scope to the important interpretive controversies. The College Board, however, has elected to provide a dogmatically post-American perspective. It will take some time to create a viable history curriculum that competes with APUSH, but that’s what we really need to do.

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