APEH: A Critical New Look at the Revised Advanced Placement European History Exam

Linda Frey

Linda Frey is a Professor of History at the University of Montana; Marsha Frey is a Professor of History at Kansas State University. They both specialize in early modern European history, especially international law and the French Revolution. Professors Frey and Frey have written and co-written books including Friedrick I. Preussens erster Konig (1984), The History of Diplomatic Immunity (1999), and Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime Europe, 1618-1900 (2007).


The College Board’s new Advanced Placement European History Course and Exam Description has proved disappointing in many ways, and needs to be revised. Although the Advanced Placement European History course purportedly replaces a two-semester introduction to European history, it starts in media res, in 1450. The AP course thus implicitly diminishes the importance and the impact of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the heritage of the classical world, the Medieval era, and much of the Renaissance. Colleges and universities who offer Western Civilization courses that begin in the Ancient world will be obliged to deny credit for Western Civilization I to those who take the exam for as it is now constituted, since, by a generous estimate, it covers a third of the material in a course on Western Civilization I.

The College Board never articulates the unique contribution of the West, and it particularly obscures the important role Britain played in the foundation of the United States and the formation of its ideals. Victimization and oppression dominate the AP guidelines. The College Board identifies five themes: interaction of Europe and the world (invariably negative), poverty and prosperity (with a critique of capitalism), objective knowledge and subjective visions ( is there such a thing as truth?), states and other institutions of power, and individual and society. As revealing as these themes are, what is missing is perhaps even more so. The Western Heritage, a first-rate survey of European history by Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment and Frank M. Turner, lists as its first goal the study of the development of political freedom, constitutional government, and concern for the rule of law and individual rights. That key part of the Western heritage is missing from the College Board’s European history guidelines.

Nor is that the only element missing. Oddly enough, few individuals except for some artists and scientists play a key role in the tale. Even more problematically, the guidelines play down the individual and his role in changing society. Instead, individuals are portrayed throughout via the lens of class, ethnicity, and race (p. 31). Religion as a determinant of individual identity is disregarded. These divisions are especially troubling given that individuals in the Early Modern Period identified themselves through status—e.g., as a member of the church or the nobility or the law—rather than by class. One course objective asks the students to “assess the extent to which women participated in and benefitted from the shifting values of European society from the 15th century onward” (p. 32). The course guide assumes a teleological progress that did not exist.

Parts of the guidelines are value laden as well: to give but one example, “women finally gained the vote” (p. 31). Oddly enough, these kind of judgments seem to be “caboosed” onto the material instead of integrated within it. Another learning objective asks the student to “analyze how and why Europeans have marginalized certain populations (defined as “other”) over the course of their history” (p. 32). It does not ask how they were integrated into society, through such means as the spread of religious toleration. Nowhere do we hear about how “the other” was welcomed into foreign lands—one example among many would be the Huguenots who fled Louis XIV’s France to England and Prussia.                                                         

The guidelines have a decidedly economic determinist tinge, in which capitalism is portrayed only in a negative light. For example, “Capitalism produced its own forms of poverty and social subjection” (p. 16). Yes, but capitalism also helped improve the standard of living, expedited technological advances, disrupted older economic patterns, and provided mobility. They claim that “western democracies failed to overcome the great depression” (p. 121)—an odd and incorrect statement. For the AP course, “Marxism developed a systematic economic and historical theory that inspired working-class movements and revolutions to overthrow the capitalism system” (p. 16). Yes, but its theoretical and practical failures are not mentioned, while the tremendous costs of Marxist totalitarian regimes are muted. The discussion of the Cold War ignores the obvious fact that the USSR murdered millions. Soviet oppression of Eastern Europe is virtually ignored.

The AP guidelines also often suffer from presentism. For example, in the period 1648 to 1815 the authors discuss “immigrants’ rights” (pp. 61, 70, 73). Immigrant privileges such as tax exemptions (e.g. in Prussia) were certainly discussed in the Early Modern period, but not their “rights”.

Equally problematically, the AP guidelines repeatedly emphasize the “Columbian exchange,” but we hear nothing about Columbus himself, or any of the great explorers who had the courage to leave known territory and seek new lands. When it mentions the causes of war in early modern Europe, the guide emphasizes that competition for trade led to conflicts and rivalries, but it ignores such causes as religion. Religion, meanwhile, is relegated to the realm of subjective experience, and usually associated with negative consequences. Its role in the elimination of the slave trade is ignored, as is its impact on civil rights.

The AP guidelines’ treatment of slavery exemplifies how narrowly it treats European history. As noted, the guidelines don’t emphasize how religion helped to end the practice; neither do they discuss faith-based slavery in early modern Europe, which led to the enslavement of millions of Christians and Muslims. The practice of slavery and human sacrifice in meso-America is never mentioned. Neither is the Renaissance debate about slavery mentioned, much less individuals such as Bartolomé de las Casas, who brought about the abolition of Indian slavery in the Spanish empire.

The world outside of Europe is invariably presented in positive terms. One of the guidelines’ objectives is to “Assess the role of European contact on overseas territories through the introduction of disease, participation in the slave trade and slavery, effects on agriculture and manufacturing patterns and global conflict” (p. 111). The interaction is only negative.

On yet another issue, the coming of the French Revolution, the exam emphasizes the role of social inequality in the coming of the conflagration, but totally ignores the vital role of debt, which caused the immediate collapse of the government. This oversimplification is repeated in the instructional strategies when the instructor is urged to provide two short explanations of the French Revolution, one of which focuses on the social and the other on the political. But nowhere is there mention of France’s fiscal collapse, which was the direct precipitant of the calling of the Estates General and the Revolution. The most famous commentator on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, isn’t even mentioned in the section on the eighteenth century.

Theme 5 erroneously links the revolutionary emphasis on liberty with the end of feudalism and serfdom—but the development of towns and an urban economy ended most serfdom in Western Europe by 1300, while feudalism was a social and military phenomenon of the Middle Ages, not the Early Modern or the Modern periods. The authors should use the more correct word, seigneurialism and not perpetuate Marx’s error of using feudalism in its place. Oddly enough, feudalism and serfdom in the AP guidelines end in the nineteenth century.

Other issues arise. The exam repeats the long discredited idea that the European state system originated in the Peace of Westphalia. Theme 1 mentions the rivalry between France and Great Britain, but ignores the equally important struggle between the Habsburgs and the French. The introduction to the section on 1914 to the present stresses that “European nations could not act autonomously in international affairs” (p. 106), which is only true to the extent that it has always been true, and therefore trivial. Throughout, the guidelines stress the rights of the individual rather than the duties of a member of society.

Undoubtedly, the AP guidelines’ authors were faced with a formidable challenge as they tried to sketch a proper Western Civilization survey. Their answer was a detailed guideline that tries to appease various modern-day political and scholarly pressure groups—and ends up micromanaging the European history curriculum, while producing amateurish and politicized mush. They could have done far better if they had simply trusted the authors of the approved textbooks listed on the College Board website, whose work is far more thorough and balanced.

Image Credit: Public Domain.

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