AP History and Us

Peter Wood

On July 30 the College Board issued a revised version of its Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) standards. This is news in its own right but it is also news with an important NAS connection.

NAS played a large role in persuading the College Board to revise the APUSH standards it issued last year.  In June we published the open letter (eventually signed by 120 historians) to the College Board calling for major changes to APUSH.  In the preceding ten months, NAS wrote to hundreds of academic historians asking them to read the 2014 version of the standards.  We also connected with high school teachers, legislators, public intellectuals, and activists concerned about the College Board’s actions.  And the controversy as a whole was set in motion by my July 2014 essay on the NAS website, “The New AP History: A Preliminary Report.” 

The College Board initially shrugged off our criticisms but the points we raised in my and other articles soon caught fire.  A serious independent appraisal of the 2014 APUSH standards was underway and, among other things, it was picked up by the Texas State Board of Education and by legislators in Georgia, Oklahoma, and several other states.  The College Board began to listen and announced that it would do its own review of APUSH.  The July 30 document—for convenience, we’ll call the 2014 version APUSH 1.0, and the 2015 revision APUSH 2.0—is the fruit of that review.

How should NAS respond to APUSH 2.0?  Some critics of APUSH 1.0 have declared themselves satisfied.  One of them advised us, “Declare victory and move on.”  Another, citing an essay by Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote to us, “If it is good enough for AEI, it is good enough for me.” 

We’ve weighed that approach against the weaknesses in APUSH 2.0.  And we have decided that NAS still has an important role to play in keeping the heat on the College Board.  Some Q & A:

1. Why should the National Association of Scholars, which is mainly concerned with higher education, devote significant attention to APUSH?

APUSH is one of the places where high school education connects most directly to college.  APUSH is designed to emulate a college-level American history survey course.  It is taken by about 500,000 college-bound high school students each year, and for nearly all of them, it is the last survey course in American history they will ever take.  Most colleges no longer require a survey course in American history and the few that do generally accept AP credit as a substitute.  Given that many of the best and brightest high school students take APUSH, the content of the course matters deeply to what the coming generation knows of their nation’s history.  Part of NAS’s mission, of course, is “to promote virtuous citizenship.”  In that light we have to be concerned when the baseline understanding of American history for the best students headed to college is an impoverished view of our nation’s past.

We have one other reason to be concerned.  APUSH is pushing or being pushed into becoming the standard not just for the best students but for all students.  This is partially because the content of AP courses diffuses out to other courses through textbooks and teachers, but it is also because APUSH is increasingly treated not as something reserved for the few.  As one teacher wrote to us, “My district is moving toward an effort to increase AP enrollment through automatic enrollment.” Her district is “putting all students into AP classes at initial registration unless the parents opt out their son/daughter.” 

2. What’s so bad about APUSH 2.0?  Didn’t the College Board make improvements after listening to its critics?

The new 147-page document (APUSH 2.0) is indeed a substantial improvement over the 134-page one issued in 2014 (APUSH 1.0).  The new version includes important individuals (e.g. James Madison) omitted from APUSH 1.0.  It significantly reduces the overexpression of progressive bias (e.g. World War II is no longer presented through the lens of “the internment of Japanese Americans, challenges to civil liberties, debates over race and segregation, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb,” and  President Reagan is no longer characterized as a purveyor of “bellicose rhetoric.”)  And greater attention is given to American inventiveness.

I’d like to give full credit to the College Board for these improvements and for the spirit of trying to get things right.  But that said, there is still much that is not right.  And some of what is not right seems to be the result of ideological blinders worn by the College Board’s authors.

For example, the term “American exceptionalism,” absent from APUSH 1.0, appears once in APUSH 2.0—though not in a manner that suggests the documents authors understand it very well.  “American exceptionalism” has generally referred to the idea that America was and is a new kind of nation, one founded on the philosophical principles named in the Declaration of Independence but harkening back to Governor Winthrop’s 1630 sermon calling on the colonists of Massachusetts Bay to create a community that would be “a city on a hill” for all mankind.  The “American exceptionalism” of APUSH 2.0 is undefined and undescribed, though in context it seems to mean something like ‘aggressive nationalism.’

The new treatment of “American exceptionalism” thus comes across as, at best, superficial.  It may not be intended to be a brush-off of a key idea.  Having talked with College Board officials, I’m more inclined to see it as genuine incomprehension.  The College Board writers are so attuned to the progressive worldview that they literally cannot make sense of key ideas that are repudiated by that worldview. 

In a similar vein, APUSH 2.0 is deaf and blind to the roles that organized religion has played in key episodes of American life, including the Founding.  APUSH 2.0 cannot comprehend the importance of American military history or how the nation’s wars have reshaped the culture.  APUSH 2.0 tends to reduce the history of ideas and ideals to sidelights on power politics and group interests.  I give the College Board credit for reducing the overt emphasis in APUSH 1.0 on identity group politics and for reintroducing in APUSH 2.0 the theme of “national identity,” but the sub-group emphasis is merely less conspicuous.  The story that APUSH 2.0 tells is still essentially white Europeans taking unfair advantage of innocent Native Americans, Africans, and others.

I certainly would not want to banish that story, but it is insinuated in APUSH 2.0 in such a way that students will never get a glimpse of where it falls short.  As an anthropologist looking at APUSH 2.0 I’m struck by shallow treatment of “Native Americans,” who are presented primarily as victims of “subjugation.”  Various tribes of Native Americans were, of course, themselves masters of subjugation and genocidal wars against one another long before Europeans set foot in the New World.  There is a large blind spot in APUSH 2.0 when it comes to the social dynamics of the identity groups it favors, and the result is a historical narrative that is often simplistic in ways that match the current political sympathies of the American left.

I’ve tried in my public comments on APUSH 2.0 to strike a balance between recognizing the positive steps the College Board has taken and the limits of the College Board’s success.  But I’ve found that some of the reporters I’ve spoken to translate this into my endorsing APUSH 2.0 as an unalloyed improvement.  So let me be unsubtle:  APUSH 2.0 falls far short of what we should demand as a high school survey course that potentially exempts students from college survey courses in American history.  We can and should do better.

NAS will continue to post essays and thoughtful comments on APUSH from historians and other scholars on the NAS website.  We have just posted a commentary by Professor Larry Schweikart from the University of Dayton.  All responsible views are welcome.  We are not merely aggregating statements by critics of APUSH 2.0; supporters are welcome.  (NAS upholds the practice, as well as the principle, of intellectual freedom!)

3. Should NAS work with the College Board to make further improvements?  Or should NAS strike off in another direction?

Some critics of APUSH 2.0 are calling for organizing an independent alternative to APUSH, and perhaps to some of the other College Board Advanced Placement courses.  This would be a large, complicated, and expensive effort, and would result in a David vs. Goliath competition.  Still it is mainly the threat of competition that brought the College Board to make the changes that resulted in APUSH 2.0 and only the continued threat of competition is likely to stimulate further positive changes. 

We’ve been in discussion with the proponents of the approach of establishing an organized competitor to the College Board, and all I can say at this point is that prospect is more realistic than I would have initially guessed.  If this moves ahead, it is likely that NAS will play a part. 

But at the same time, NAS and the College Board are now in constructive conversation as well.  If we can influence the College Board for the better, we will.  At this point, we do not have to make a hard and fast decision which approach to pursue. 

4. What are some of the other factors that need to be considered in evaluating APUSH 2.0?

Any set of “standards” is inevitably part of a larger whole.  In the case of APUSH, the standards “align” with a standardized test, textbooks, a wide variety of other instructional materials, teacher training, and state laws.  The College Board’s release of APUSH 2.0 on July 30 changed none of these other components.  That’s no surprise.  It took the College Board years to put all these pieces together for APUSH 1.0.  It will take time to make adjustments for APUSH 2.0.

The day before APUSH 2.0 came out, Newsweek posted an article about it sourced to unnamed College Board representatives.  It said that the new APUSH “doesn’t require a change in any textbooks, according to the College Board.”  I contacted David Coleman, the president of the College Board, immediately to ask if this was indeed the Board’s position.  He said it was not and later that day posted a disclaimer to that effect. 

What I make of this is that the College Board has some staff members who regard APUSH 2.0 as a necessary concession in light of public resistance to APUSH 1.0 but who imagine that the standards alone were enough and no further changes would be necessary.  They were counting on the critics to be too naïve to recognize that the tests, textbooks, and other components are even more important than the standards themselves.

But they were wrong and we called them on it.  This could be a matter of taking President Coleman in good faith and assuming that, in due course, the changes in the tests, textbooks, and other materials will follow.  But it might be wise to stay alert to what happens next.  What we know right now is that the tests are designed to test APUSH 1.0 material, so all of the new material in APUSH 2.0 is, for the moment, window dressing. And we know that the main textbook for APUSH is aligned to APUSH 1.0.  It is America’s History by James A. Henretta, Eric Hinderaker, Rebecca Edwards, and Robert O. Self.  Usually referred to as “Henretta,” the book presents a harshly negative view of the United States.  The biases of APUSH 1.0 are loud, clear, and vigorously propounded in Henretta.  And Henretta will remain the dominant textbook for teaching APUSH 2.0 for some time to come.  School districts, of course, buy textbooks with the intention of keeping them in use as long as possible.  So we can expect the Henretta view of American history to remain a major part of the AP curriculum for years to come, regardless of the standards. 

 This is one of the reasons why I think NAS has to remain involved in this controversy. 

5. What can supporters of NAS do to help? 

High school history instruction certainly is not a front and center issue for every member of NAS, and NAS itself has other important projects underway.  We are continuing our critique of the sustainability movement.  We are tracking common reading (“beach book”) programs.  We have a new study on college civics instruction nearing completion.  We are fighting racial preferences in college admissions.  We are launching a new initiative on protecting free expression on campus.  We are trying to find a good way to address the new “sexual assault” regime on campus.  We have an abundance of other issues to address.  But APUSH is here and now and we have to step up.

All of us involved with undergraduate education, regardless of the subject, have a stake in our students gaining a wide, reasonably well-informed, and unbiased understanding of the nation’s history.  Students who lack that are like leaves blown in the winds of fashionable ideologies.  So the first thing we need is for NAS members to engage the issue.  Read about it; read the APUSH 2.0 standards; read the defenders and read the critics. 

Second, NAS brought this controversy into being on less than a shoestring budget.  The College Board operates on a budget of more than $850 million per year.  Much as I’d like to bridge the difference, I’d be happy if could raise a mere $100,000 to back our work on APUSH.  That would cover our staff and out-of-pocket expenses for a while.  Anything you can contribute to this effort would be gratefully received. 

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