AP US History: FAQs

Glenn Ricketts

  1. What is the College Board?

The College Board is a private, nonprofit corporation established in 1900 as the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB) by a consortium of colleges, universities and preparatory schools in hopes of devising more uniform standards under which college applicants could be evaluated.  Occasionally mistaken for a government agency or educational association, the CB today is best known as the sponsor and owner of the SAT, AP and CLEP tests widely taken by prospective college students. It also maintains a 6,000-member organization of colleges, universities and other educational organizations.  The current president of the College Board is David Coleman, who assumed the post in 2012.  Coleman also served as a member of the lead group charged by the National Governors’ Association with developing the controversial Common Core State Standards for K-12 education.

  1. What is APUSH?

APUSH is an acronym for Advanced Placement in US History, and is part of the advanced placement program offered through the College Board.  The CB has designed and administered AP courses in history and many other subjects since 1955.  The APUSH package consists of a preparatory course and an exam covering American history, and is typically open to high school juniors and seniors. As with other AP courses, students who achieve higher scores will usually earn advance college credit or, at least, “place out” of some of their undergraduate requirements, prior to actually attending college.  High AP scores can also enhance students’ prospects for admission at more selective colleges.  And since many successful students will probably not study US history beyond the AP exam, the content of the course will shape their knowledge and perception of US history for the rest of their lives.  AP courses are subject to periodic modification, as in the current instance.  The new APUSH course package was implemented in September, 2014.

  1. Why has there been so much controversy over the new APUSH standards? 

There are many specific criticisms, and they come from a variety of sources: academics, actual AP history teachers and grass roots activists in local school districts.   But the most common by far is that the APUSH course focuses doggedly on the themes of oppression, conquest, greed and exploitation by English invaders: they wiped out the indigenous peoples, imported millions of African slaves, created permanent racial hierarchies and subjugated women.  On that foundation, they erected an industrial colossus that virtually enslaved millions of unsuspecting immigrants, created drastic social inequalities and wantonly despoiled the environment.  And that’s an abbreviated list.  Given this ideological tilt, it’s probably not surprising that one of the College Board’s senior staffers is a full-time “social justice” fellow whose job it is to promote the organization’s “social agenda.”

  1. Is this debate something new?

Actually, no.  We had a similar go-around back in the mid 90’s when the National Center for History in the Schools, under the leadership of UCLA historian Gary Nash, produced the National History Standards for use in elementary and secondary schools, grades 5-12.  Although Nash and his colleagues claimed that they only sought to integrate “social history” into the curriculum, critics such as Lynn Cheney charged that the new standards neglected the central events and foundational ideas of American history in favor of identity politics and group grievance.  A prolonged national debate ensued and the NHS were eventually adopted, albeit with significant revisions.  Perhaps with this experience in mind, the College Board released the new APUSH standards in October, 2012, almost by stealth:  there was no advance publicity and no press release, just a quiet fait accompli which appeared at the CB web page one day.  The new AP course remained under the radar screen until Larry Krieger, a former AP history teacher, and Jane Robbins, an educational researcher, published a detailed critique of the standards in March 2014. The standards were implemented on schedule in September, but critics and opponents continue to demand their revision or replacement.

  1. How has the College Board reacted to public criticism?

CB at first ignored the criticism, then opened a comments board, now closed, in the attempt to placate its critics.  But as a growing number of academic historians, high school history teachers, local school boards and grass roots activists studied the new standards and published objections to them, CB orchestrated a media response of its own, and enlisted some high-profile supporters to defend the APUSH standards.  James R. Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, stepped up in the New York Times as did Susan Griffin, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies in the Texas Tribune.  And CB president David Coleman himself published an open letter standing by APUSH and releasing a sample exam illustrating the specific content students would be expected to master.  His letter prompted a critical response from Krieger and Robbins.

  1. Don’t the APUSH standards simply reflect the updating and new scholarship that’s being turned out by leading academics at our universities? 

Yes, they do, and that’s precisely the problem.  For a very long time, academic historians have been locked in a conceptual cage that seems obsessed with race, class, gender, sexuality, inequality, etc., etc.  It’s almost impossible to find once-mainstream subfields such as military or diplomatic history, or traditional surveys that focus on the chronological sequence of the major events in US history.  We closely documented this trend in our 2013 study, Recasting History: Are Race, Class and Gender Dominating American History?. History Ph.D.s who venture outside of this grid commit virtual professional suicide. The new APUSH standards rigorously hew this line, and will inevitably make it more difficult for AP teachers who want to do anything else.  An occasional contrarian may pop up here and there, but the majority of high school teachers nowadays are very long on pedagogy and short on historical knowledge. Most likely, they’ll take the easy route by sticking to the APUSH outline. 

  1. But why is it wrong to examine the dark spots in American history? Shouldn’t students be exposed to the less attractive side of the American experience?

There’s nothing wrong with that idea at all, and the critics don’t dispute that our history includes a number of unpleasant episodes.  In the first place, it’s simply inaccurate to suggest, as supporters of APUSH often do, that slavery and its legacy, the mistreatment of native peoples, and other injustices have simply been ignored, with students getting only the roseate Parson Weems version of American history. Indeed, the previous AP US history course used by the College Board contained a great deal of social history and references to social injustices. What’s missing here is any sense of proportion: the new APUSH standards seem to present an inverted rendition of Parson Weems, with a relentless, almost exclusive, emphasis on racism, hierarchy, social inequality and the growth of capitalism. And since students who “place out” probably won’t study US history again, this drastically truncated, ideologically skewed version will frame their thinking about American history for the rest of their lives.

  1. Aside from the ideological slant, what else is wrong with APUSH?

Mainly what the course omits: the major events, themes, personalities and governing political institutions of American history and civilization are given exceedingly short shrift.  Students will learn little or nothing about the Founding period and the constitutional republic which it established, or of the ideas and ideals which underlay it.  Major historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington or Alexander Hamilton are mentioned only as adjuncts to particular themes, such as class privilege, but not for their seminal influence on American history. It may be true that slavery was sanctioned by the Constitution of 1789, or that women were unable to vote, but shouldn’t the primary emphasis focus on the intellectual underpinnings of the Constitution elaborated in Federalist 51, where James Madison explains why “checks and balances” are so essential to reining in power and preserving freedom?  In the same vein, there’s nothing wrong with a sidebar focused on the role of women in WW II, but isn’t it paramount that students understand why that war was fought and what was at stake?  If there is a Big Picture overarching the course of American history, students will get no sense of it from APUSH.

  1. Why do opponents object to the new standards’ emphasis on critical thinking skills, which would help students to become “apprentice historians?  Wouldn’t this benefit students by teaching them to think and analyze?

To be an historian, apprentice or otherwise, you need to know a lot of content: especially what happened and when it happened.  As noted above, AP students get very little of this from APUSH and won’t have much solid history to analyze. In place of chronological sequencing, the APUSH course approaches American history through a set of 7 themes: identity; work, exchange and technology; peopling; politics and power; America in the World; Environment and geography – physical and human; ideas, beliefs and culture.  On the one hand, these categories appear to leave a great deal of latitude to individual teachers, who could supply a wide range of subject matter, depending on their individual interests or goals.  At the same time, there’s nothing in them to ensure that students will examine the Founding in detail, the importance of religious beliefs in colonial America, or the fervent isolationism which impeded Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy in the 1930’s.  Most likely, students will be led to emulate the same sort of “critical thinking” currently popular at the college level, which seems to aim at pushing them toward specific conclusions about the usual race/class/gender/inequality “social justice” themes.  Genuine “critical thinking” might result in a challenge to these ideas, but that’s a rarity at the college level, and likely will follow suit at the secondary level. As a result, the course will probably produce a fair number of social activists, but precious few historians.

  1. Isn’t it always going to be difficult to agree on what students should learn about the past? 

Yes, inevitably.  Just consider, for example the vastly different views of the Civil War that you might have been taught at one time, depending on whether you attended high school in Massachusetts or in Alabama. And there will always be divergent schools of interpretation as well:  Charles Beard, Herbert Baxter Adams and Frederick Jackson Turner all viewed the same events through distinct conceptual lenses.  But it’s hard to imagine that they would have endorsed a standardized national course that failed to include basic coverage of the Revolutionary War, the Founding and the other major events of American history.

Image: "Lincoln Memorial" by Jeff Kubina // CC BY-SA

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