The New History Guidelines are Better

Aug 11, 2015 |  KC Johnson

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The New History Guidelines are Better

Aug 11, 2015 | 

KC Johnson

previously wrote about the new AP U.S. History guidelines (APUSH). The guidelines generated considerable criticism—in so small part because they seemed intent on evading state guidelines regarding the instruction of U.S. history. Basically: the earlier guidelines heavily emphasized themes of race, class, and gender, at the expense of more “traditional” types of U.S. history that most states expect their high school students to confront. And the earlier guidelines strongly implied that AP history teachers could teach required “skills” (such as, for instance, the “skill” of experiencing primary sources) through content as varied as the Federalist Papers or an obscure diary.

new version of APUSH has appeared, one that responds to some of the criticism made. Below are some initial reactions.

(1) The most striking change is the insertion of a free-floating two paragraphs about founding documents, which the guidelines assert help “students better understand pivotal moments in American history.” Accordingly, the guidelines note, teachers have the option of teaching the document in depth.

This is a fairly significant change from the first APUSH version. Colorado professor Fred Anderson, co-chair of the original APUSH committee, remarked that the guidelines were designed to result in high school students “receiving instruction equivalent to lower-division history survey courses offered in university and college settings.” Since in most college history departments students can now graduate without encountering the founding documents, it seems that the APUSH modifications move away from the original goal of replacing state history standards with those more common in college history departments.

(2) The new APUSH guidelines are structured differently. The original APUSH began with a very detailed discussion of “skills,” which frequently had suggested content items attached to them, in ways that seemed to invite a trendy response. For instance, the original APUSH guidelines offered two content examples through which teachers could satisfy skill #1 (historical causation). They could examine a foundational aspect of U.S. history—the differing economic structures between North and South, balanced against the short-term congressional gridlock that led to the Civil War. Or they could “explore the roots of the modern environmental movement in the Progressive Era and the New Deal, as well as debate underlying and proximate causes of environmental catastrophes arising from pesticide use and offshore oil drilling.” The implication—whether intended or not—is that as long as students mastered the “skill,” it didn’t matter if they did so through understanding the political and economic background to the Civil War or through examining the history of environmental catastrophes.

The newer version dramatically decreases the pages devoted to “skills” from nine to two, a welcome shift in guidelines for a course that ends with a content-based exam. It also shies away from offering trendy content examples to how teachers could satisfy the skills. As with the reference to founding documents, this change is welcome.

(3) The guidelines’ second section consists of seven “thematic learning objectives.” Three of these (politics and power; America and the world; and work, exchange, and technology) are unchanged. The other four themes have shifted, all in commendable ways:

“Identity” in the original version has become “American and national identity,” a significant, and welcome, narrowing of the concept. The change would suggest that identity-politics content wouldn’t satisfy the new learning objective.

“Peopling” has become “migration and settlement”; and “Ideas, belief, and culture” has become “culture and society.” It’s unlikely either of these will shift, but the more precise language is welcome.

Finally, “environment and geography—physical and human” in the original version has become “geography and the environment.” Starting with geography is welcome, as is the deletion of the “human” angle, which seemed to invite teachers to diminish emphasis on more traditional aspects of geography, which already get short shrift in contemporary public education.

In short, these thematic alterations feature more precise wording and closer alignment with the objectives of most states’ history curricula. And more generally, they lessen (though don’t entirely avoid) a major problem of the original APUSH, which seemed to pick out random people or events in American history and suggest these items were equally important so, say, Benjamin Franklin or Marbury v. Madison.

(4) The content section divides U.S. history into nine periods in both versions. The most controversial change from the original APUSH, which remains in the new version, was the inclusion of a section covering the years from 1491-1607 (to cover 5 percent of the course). That section remains.

Historians, of course, always look back in time, so there’s nothing intellectually objectionable to this material. Indeed, the APUSH designers could have gone back further—to the Vikings, perhaps, or to the Magna Carta. But the inclusion has a practical effect. Moving 5 percent of a course to the pre-1607 period means deleting 5 percent of the post-1607 content. Starting so much earlier also increases the chances that the course will rush through more recent U.S. history. The guidelines suggest 5 percent to the post-1980 period—arguably not enough space, given that a typical student in a AP history course this fall likely would have only faint memory of Barack Obama’s election, no or virtually no memory of 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq, and no memory of the fall of communism, the AIDS epidemic, the debate over apartheid, a world without the internet, the Reagan presidency, or any other aspect of 1980s history. And as anyone who’s ever taught a history survey knows, in-course adjustment means rushing through the very late stages, all the more so given that fluke weather or budgetary reasons sometimes ,leads to slight shortening of the school year.

So it would have been far better for the APUSH guidelines to ensure recent history got sufficient coverage. I’ll have some additional comments on content in a future post.


This article originally appared in Minding the Campus: Reforming Our Universities on August 3, 2015.

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