Churchill In, Columbus Still Out: A Half-Loaf from the College Board

Dec 05, 2017 |  David Randall

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Churchill In, Columbus Still Out: A Half-Loaf from the College Board

Dec 05, 2017 | 

David Randall

The College Board has revised its Advanced Placement European History (APEH) standards in response to the criticism the National Association of Scholars leveled at those standards last year. The College Board’s small revisions to its existing European History guidelines have improved its standards noticeably. If the College Board follows through to change its preferred text books, teacher preparation, and ancillary materials prepared by independent organizations, then the improvement to the European History standards will translate into a real improvement in the history our students learn. That isn’t certain yet—and the College Board’s failure to make such changes for its Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) examination materials warrants skepticism that it will follow up with its APEH materials. Nevertheless, the revision of its standards is an encouraging first step.

Yet the NAS called for the College Board to provide an unbiased assessment of European history by making structural changes to its APEH standards. The College Board has not done so. Instead it made superficial changes that preserved its commitment to an ideologically biased version of European history straightjacketed by progressive dogma. Furthermore, the changes it did make preserved or introduced basic errors of historical fact. The insufficient nature of the College Board’s revisions illustrates the limits of the organization’s ability to reform itself so as to provide adequate history assessment. The College Board’s inability to revise its European History standards underscores the need for a new, competing assessment organization, which will be able to provide an advanced placement history assessment that is ideologically unbiased and meets a minimum professional standard of factual accuracy.

NAS’s Critique of the College Board

A year ago the National Association of Scholars published The Disappearing Continent (2016), which criticized the College Board’s Advanced Placement European History Course and Exam Description (2015) for warping and gutting the history of Europe to make it serve today’s progressive agenda.

APEH minimized or excised whole categories of European history—the history of political liberty; the history of free-market economic liberty; the history of religion; the history of Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims; any intellectual history outside the narrow narrative of secular modernization; the history of Europe’s unique development of the architecture of modern knowledge, which made possible almost every modern form of intellectual inquiry; and the history of Britain. The College Board gave no hint that Europe’s history before ca. 1450 mattered, or even existed.

APEH also minimized and extenuated the evils of Communism, the brutal destructiveness of Soviet rule, and the aggressiveness of Soviet foreign policy. Contingency, culture, politics, and historical individuals nearly disappeared, replaced by inevitability, society, and economics. Finally, APEH didn’t argue that European history is exceptional, important, or interesting in itself, never gave a reason why students should study Europe’s history in particular, and never mentioned that Americans should study Europe’s past because it is our history.

The College Board publicly replied to NAS’s critique with a brush-off. Privately, its personnel read The Disappearing Continent closely. The College Board’s updated AP European History Course and Exam Description for 2017 now incorporates a great deal of our critique of its old standards.

What the College Board Changed

We know the College Board was reading The Disappearing Continent (DC), because it made a large number of changes between the 2015 Course and Exam Description (APEH 2015) and the 2017 Course and Exam Description (APEH 2017) in response to our detailed critiques. We criticized them for passing silently over John Wesley and Winston Churchill, and both now figure prominently in its standards (DC, p. 7; APEH 2017, pp. 101, 150). We said that an account of the Reformation ought to include mention of the German Peasants’ Revolt (1524-25), and now APEH states that “Responses to Luther and Calvin included religious radicals, such as the Anabaptists, and other groups, such as German peasants [our bold-face]” (DC, pp. 13-14; APEH 2017, p. 55). We criticized the word invariably in the sentence “The development of advanced weaponry invariably ensured the military superiority of Europeans over colonized areas,” and cited defeats of Europeans such as the Battles of Adowa (1896) and Tsushima (1905) to substantiate our point. The revised sentence now reads “The development of advanced weaponry ensured the military advantage of Europeans over colonized areas.” (APEH 2015, p. 100; DC, p. 33) A great many other small changes—tautening language, reducing hostility toward conservatives, deleting bias toward secular modernity, reducing hostility toward Europe, emphasizing praiseworthy elements of European history—also demonstrate that the College Board read our critique closely (e.g., APEH 2017, pp. 12-13 [Theme 1], 20 [Theme 3], 54 [1.1.IV.D], 76 [2.1], 130 [3.4.II.B], 136 [3.5.III.B], 139 [3.6.II.B], 146).


The College Board also made larger changes in response to our critiques. We criticized the College Board’s homogenizing narrative of secular modernization because it excised “the enduring salience of the particularities of nation, religion, and culture” (DC, p. 34). The College Board has now added a sixth theme, on National and European Identity, which put nations and national cultures in the center of the APEH examination (APEH 2017, pp. 38-42).


The College Board also made large numbers of smaller revisions that give greater prominence to religion. We criticized the absence of Max Weber’s thesis that Protestant faith nurtured economic modernity—and the College Board added a new Sub-Concept, “Some Protestant groups sanctioned the notion that wealth accumulation was a sign of God’s favor and a reward for hard work. Illustrative examples, Protestants who viewed wealth as signs of God’s favor: Calvinists” (DC, p. 14; APEH 2017, p. 55). Shoehorned into its secular account of Romanticism, the College Board added another new Sub-Concept: “Consistent with the Romantic Movement, religious revival occurred in Europe and included notable movements such as Methodism, founded by John Wesley” (APEH 2017, p. 101).

Smaller revisions throughout the revised APEH give greater prominence to religion in European history. The discussion of the Reformation now includes illustrative examples of the details of “new Protestant interpretations of Christian doctrine and practice,” including “Priesthood of all believers, Primacy of scripture, Predestination, Salvation by faith alone” (APEH 2017, p.55). The revised description of the Scientific Revolution notes that “many of these natural philosophers retained religious worldviews as they explored these new approaches to scientific inquiry” (APEH 2017, p. 20). The description of nineteenth-century “nongovernmental reform movements” has been changed to characterize “many of them [as] religious” (APEH 2017, p. 126). The sample questions at the end of the Guide now include two sets of multiple choice questions and a series of short-answer questions, all dealing with the subject matter of faith in European history (APEH 2017, pp. 232, 237-38, 248). These changes do not change the APEH’s overall historical framework of secular modernization—but they soften its thrust. Religion may not have its full due in the revised APEH, but it is no longer invisible.

Soviet Union

The College Board has also modified its treatment of the Soviet Union to give a more accurate depiction of its horrific character. The standards now describe the “communist Soviet Union” as “authoritarian” and the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s as “devastating,” and they acknowledge that Stalin’s “centralized program of rapid economic modernization” had “severe repercussions for the population” (APEH 2017, pp. 150, 157-58). APEH’s description of the Soviet model now states that it was “a policy of planned economies that collectivized agriculture in the name of forcing rapid industrial growth, and which ultimately experienced economic and political collapse,” and acknowledges that it “brought with it the restriction of individual rights and freedoms, suppression of dissent, and constraint of emigration for the various populations within the Soviet bloc” (APEH 2017, pp. 16, 164). Two sets of sample multiple choice questions, the first about the Soviet oppression of peasants in 1920 and the second about Soviet persecution of dissidents in the 1970s, further reinforce the depth of knowledge of Soviet brutality (APEH 2017, pp. 241-42, 245).

The College Board has improved its description of the Soviets’ Eastern European empire. The subjugated nations are now described as “bound by their relationships” to the USSR, rather than “defined by their relationships.” APEH also acknowledges that in Eastern Europe “individual choices were directed by the state,” “economic life was dedicated to heavy industry rather than the production of consumer goods,” and that the region was “heavily regulated in planned economies directed by the Soviet Union.” The College Board now also states forthrightly that the aftermath of Eastern European rebellions against Soviet rule was the “reimposition of Soviet rule and repressive totalitarian regimes” (APEH 2017, pp. 33-34, 164).

APEH’s description still pulls its punches. To say that Stalin undertook a “centralized program of rapid economic modernization, often with severe repercussions for the population,” still avoids the more accurate analysis that “Stalin starved millions of peasants to death so as to break their will to resist the Soviet regime; in the process, he committed genocide on the Ukrainians.” The College Board retains the Communist euphemism “liquidation of the kulaks” to refer to the indiscriminate mass murder and exile of peasants—and adding the description “the landowning peasantry” still endorses the Communist propaganda that they actually focused their slaughter on the richer peasants (2017 APEH, p. 158). Besides the College Board’s persisting silence about the starvation-genocide of the Ukrainians, the Soviet regimes’ lesser genocides and ethnic cleansings—of Balts and Tatars, of Poles and Germans—still go unmentioned. The College Board’s treatment of Soviet history is improved, but still far short of what it should be.

Economics and the State

The College Board made many small improvements to its treatment of free markets—which it still usually refers to by the Marxizing abstraction ‘capitalism.’ It has removed the howler that Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) justified capitalism (APEH 2017, p. 16), and extensively rewritten its descriptions of capitalism and socialism to refer to them more impartially. Socialists no longer call for “a fair redistribution of society’s resources and wealth,” but just “the redistribution of society’s resources and wealth.” “Interventionist economic and social policies” are no longer described as “a rational approach to reform.” Nineteenth-century reforms are no longer attributed to governments alone, but to “governments motivated by such forces as public opinion, prominent individuals, and charity organizations” (APEH 2015, p. 90; APEH 2017, pp. 16, 124). The College Board rarely treats free markets positively, but it has removed a good portion of the tendentious language criticizing free markets and slanting historical analysis in favor of government intervention.


The College Board made no structural changes to re-orient its standards around British history, but it now illustrates its narrative with a larger number of British individuals and events. The standards now mention Mary Wortley Montagu to illustrate 18th century inoculation; John Wesley and Methodism to illustrate both the 18th century privatization of religion and the romantic-era revival of religion; Edwin Chadwick to illustrate nineteenth-century social reform; Walter Scott, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner to illustrate Romanticism; Manchester to illustrate 19th century factories; Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” to illustrate imperialist ideology; the Easter Rebellion to illustrate World War I rebellions; Winston Churchill to illustrate strong individual leadership that contributed to Allied victory during World War II; and Brexit to illustrate national challenges to the European Union (APEH 2017, pp. 98, 101-02, 114, 124, 133, 148, 150, 178). The College Board does not tie the history of Britain to the history of liberty, or recognize America’s unique debt to its British inheritance, but its choice of examples strengthens Britain’s presence in its narrative of European history.

Islam, Judaism, and Orthodox Christianity

The College Board made small improvements to restore Islam, Judaism, and Orthodox Christianity to its outline of European history. The Ottoman conquests now receive brief mention—“Habsburg rulers confronted an expanded Ottoman Empire while attempting unsuccessfully to restore Catholic unity across Europe”—albeit the word “expanded” gives no sense of Islam’s linked religious and military dynamism (APEH 2017, p. 57). One set of sample multiple choice questions now also refers to the 19th century Ottoman intellectual confrontation with Western thought (APEH 2017, pp. 239-40). The revised APEH hints at the existence of traditional Jewry by specifying that “during the 19th century western European Jews became more socially and politically acculturated” (APEH 2017, p. 122). But the religious diversity of European history is still largely invisible.

Teaching Earlier Periods

The College Board has not introduced an AP covering classical or medieval European history. Nor has it changed its foreshortened narrative of secular modernization. It did, however, introduce a paragraph on “Teaching Earlier Periods” to acknowledge the need to study these earlier periods.

[T]o gain a deeper appreciation of the themes and patterns in European history, many instructors find it useful to introduce the course with elements of earlier periods, such as ancient, classical, or medieval history. Information on Greek and Roman attitudes, for example, would help students understand the significance of how Renaissance artists and scholars made use of ancient thought in their work. Similarly, a discussion of Catholic theology from Augustine through the late middle ages would help students appreciate the impact of such thought on later European intellectual, cultural, social, and political beliefs, as well as religious conflicts during the Reformation and the wars of religion (APEH 2017, p. 43).

The College Board’s acknowledgment of the importance of the European past, and especially its medieval Christian framework, is pro forma—but better than nothing.

What the College Board Hasn’t Changed

Above all, the College Board failed to include liberty. The words liberty and freedom are still almost absent from its standards, and there is no sense that the struggle for liberty is a central thread of European history. The College Board added National and European Identity to its five existing themes; tellingly, it refused to add liberty.

The College Board failed to include economic liberty. While the revised version of its standards is less hostile to free markets, they still avoid a straightforward discussion of the principles and institutions of economic liberty, or a fairly weighted acknowledgment that it was not only industrialization but also the system of free markets that “generated unprecedented levels of material prosperity” for virtually all Europeans (APEH 2017, p. 16).

The College Board failed to incorporate the history of Europe’s unique development of the architecture of modern knowledge—from astronomy to geology in the natural sciences, and from art history to sociology in the humanities and social sciences—which made possible almost every modern form of intellectual inquiry.

The College Board failed to shift from an emphasis on the inevitabilities of social and economic history to an emphasis on contingency and individual endeavor. Strange absences therefore persist in APEH, such as the names of individual explorers such as Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama.

The College Board failed to argue that European history is exceptional, important, or interesting in itself, failed to give a reason why students should study Europe’s history in particular, and failed to mention that Americans should study Europe’s past because it is our history.

The College Board failed to remove its overall narrative of secular modernization. The improvements made by the College Board—in the history of European nations, in religious history, in the history of Britain, in the history of the Soviet Union, in the acknowledgment of European history before ca. 1450—therefore remain ultimately superficial emendations, which do not change the overall thrust of its guidelines.

It is telling that the College Board preserved language such as “In the early 21st century, Europeans continued to wrestle with issues of social justice” (APEH 2017, p. 147). Social justice is part of the vocabulary of progressive polemicists, not of historians, and the continued presence of such phrases indicates that the College Board still subordinates its assessment regime to the purposes of progressive polemic. It is equally telling that the College Board retains the bizarre statement that 19th century Russian reforms caused Russian revolutionary movements, and that the College Board ascribes no responsibility to revolutionary ideologies or the revolutionaries themselves (APEH 2017, p. 130).

Most telling of all is that revisions to APEH themselves illustrate the College Board’s continued blind spots. For example, the College Board revised its tautological statement that “Britain’s parliamentary government promoted commercial and industrial interests because those interests were represented in Parliament” to include the illustrative example “Repeal of the Corn Laws” (APEH 2017, p. 112). But the Repeal of the Corn Laws (1846) illustrates nothing of the kind.

  1. The repeal of the Corn Laws was intended to serve both Britain’s commercial and industrial interests and the interests of the politically unrepresented working poor.
  2. A significant number of these politically unrepresented working class Britons joined in the agitation of the Anti-Corn Law League.
  3. Much of the agitation to repeal the Corn Laws was conducted outside of Parliament, by figures such as Richard Cobden and John Bright.
  4. The actual repeal of the Corn Laws was enacted by the Conservative Robert Peel, who broke the Tory Party in two as he and a crucial minority of the Conservatives in Parliament joined the Liberals to enact a measure for the general good of the United Kingdom, including its working poor, against the narrow economic interests of the Tory party’s landowning core.

The choice for an illustrative example of the Repeal of the Corn Laws itself illustrates unusually well just how badly the College Board’s quasi-Marxizing presumptions continue to distort its European history guidelines.

New Errors

The College Board, in its eagerness to revise its standards to answer our critiques, actually introduced new errors. Thomas More and Juan Luis Vives are now listed as illustrative examples of “monarchical control,” when they should be illustrative examples of “Christian humanists.” “Monarchical control” was probably intended to replace “state actions to control religion and morality” on the next page (APEH 2017, pp. 55-56). Illustrative examples of Habsburg rulers now include Charles I and Charles V—who are the same person, referred to by the alternate regnal numbers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire (APEH 2017, p. 57).

The illustrative examples for “The concentration of the poor in cities led to a greater awareness of poverty, crime, and prostitution as social problems and prompted increased efforts to police marginal groups,” which refers to the period from ca. 1648 to ca. 1815, are Britain’s Poor Law and Contagious Disease Acts—respectively enacted in 1834 and 1864, decades after the end of the time period they are supposed to be illustrating (APEH 2017, p. 105). John Wesley and the Methodists are twice called into service, to illustrate two closely related aspects of European history; this duplication suggests a careless revision process (APEH 2017, pp. 98, 101). We criticized the College Board for listing Edmund Burke (1729-1797) as a 19th-century conservative thinker, and he is now listed as an 18th-century opponent of revolution—but also still listed as a 19th-century conservative thinker (DC, p. 12; APEH 2017, pp. 84, 121). The strange duplication of Edmund Burke is emblematic of the sloppiness of the College Board’s revision process.

These errors make us less confident about the basic competence of the College Board. Earlier we thought its interpretations were frequently wrong; now we are also concerned about its ability to avoid simple factual errors in its history standards. We expect better from an organization that claims to provide first-rate education assessment of American high school students.

Moving Forward

The College Board made real revisions to the Advanced Placement European history standards, which noticeably improve them. Yet its commitment to progressive dogma prevented it from making the structural changes needed to remove ideological bias from its European history assessment. Its superficial revisions to its APEH standards illustrate the inadequacy of the College Board’s mechanisms of self-correction. The sloppiness of its revision further suggests that the College Board is no longer operating at a professional level of competence.

The National Association of Scholars commends the College Board for taking our criticisms seriously, and revising its standards. Yet even if the College Board followed through on these changed standards with the necessary accompanying changes to text books, teacher preparation, and ancillary materials prepared by independent organizations, the limited nature of its changes demonstrates that the College Board is not capable of reforming itself to provide a minimum level of quality in its European History assessment standards.

The College Board’s failure to revise its APEH standards sufficiently underscores the need for a new, rival assessment organization, to provide advanced placement examinations that meet minimum professional levels of ideologically unbiased history and basic factual accuracy.

Appendix: Further Suggested Revisions to the APEH Standards

Until such time as a rival assessment organization emerges, American students will have to rely on the College Board. Since the College Board has demonstrated that it reads and responds to our critiques, we would like to suggest the following revisions to APEH, which we believe will significantly improve it, even within its current structure.

We have put our suggested emendations into bold-face.

APEH’s current Thematic Learning Objectives are

  1. Interaction of Europe and the World
  2. Poverty and Prosperity
  3. Objective Knowledge and Subjective Visions
  4. States and Other Institutions of Power
  5. Individual and Society
  6. National and European Identity

These should be replaced by

1.The Ideals and Institutions of Liberty

2.Europe’s Faiths

3.Economic Ideals and Institutions

4.The Architecture of European Knowledge

5.Europe’s Nations and Empires

6.State and Society

Beyond this overall revision, there should be a host of smaller changes and additions. The following list is not exhaustive, and we refer the College Board, and other readers, to our original critique in The Disappearing Continent for further needed changes.

Sub-Concept 1.3.II

Advances in navigation, cartography, and military technology, combined with individual exploits of exploration and conquest, enabled Europeans to establish overseas colonies and empires.

Illustrative examples, discoverers:  Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Jacques Cartier, Henry Hudson

Illustrative examples, conquerors: Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro

Sub-Concept 2.1.II.A

The outcome of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution established the freest state in Europe. A coalition of aristocrats and gentry operated through Parliament to restrain the monarchy, while the middle classes and the poor majority increased their liberties and their power by invoking, with slowly increasing effectiveness, “the rights of Englishmen.”

Illustrative examples, institutions of liberty: common law, trial by jury, lapse of the Press Licensing Act (1695)

Illustrative examples, culture of liberty: theatrical run of The Beggar’s Opera (1728), elections of John Wilkes (1768-1774), Somersett’s Case (1772)

Sub-Concept 3.1.I.B

Engineers, inventors, and businessmen, supported by government policies that greatly enlarged the application of free-market theories to the British economy, helped Britain lead the process of industrialization, largely through private initiative.

Illustrative examples, British engineers, inventors, and businessmen: Isembard Kingdom Brunel, Henry Bessemer, William Pilkington

Sub-Concept 3.3.II.A

Liberalism shifted from laissez-faire to interventionist economic and social policies in response to the challenges of industrialization.

Illustrative example, laissez-faire policies: Gladstone Budget, including Cobden-Chevalier Treaty (1860)

Illustrative example, interventionist economic and social policies:  Health Insurance Bill (Germany, 1883)

Sub-Concept 3.6.IV

Nineteenth-century European thinkers invented much of the disciplinary architecture of modern knowledge.

Sub-Concept 3.6.IV.A

Nineteenth-century European thinkers invented much of the disciplinary architecture of the modern humanities and social sciences.

Illustrative example, archaeology: Heinrich Schliemann

Illustrative example, art history: Heinrich Wölfflin

Illustrative example, history: Leopold von Ranke

Illustrative example, linguistic analysis: Jean-François Champollion

Illustrative example, sociology: Émile Durkheim

Sub-Concept 3.6.IV.B

Nineteenth-century European thinkers invented much of the disciplinary architecture of the modern sciences.

Illustrative examples, mathematics: George Boole, Georg Cantor, Nikolai Lobachevsky

Illustrative examples, computer science: Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace

Illustrative examples, chemistry and biology:  Dmitri Mendeleev, Gregor Johann Mendel

Sub-Concept 3.6.IV.C

Nineteenth-century Europeans perfected much of the institutional architecture of modern inquiry.

Illustrative examples, institutional architecture of modern inquiry: research university, ideals of academic freedom (Lehrfreiheit, Lernfreiheit)

Sub-Concept 4.3.IV.D

Creative figures in the arts and letters renovated old themes and forms, especially those of faith, to make new and distinctive contributions to twentieth-century European culture.

Illustrative examples, artists: Marc Chagall, Lucian Freud

Illustrative examples, film: Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky

Illustrative examples, music: Benjamin Britten, Francis Poulenc

Illustrative examples, writers: Aleksandr Solzhenitysn, J. R. R. Tolkien


Image Credit: Andrew Reilly // CC BY-NC 

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