APEH: A Critique by Prof. James Tracy

James D. Tracy

James D. Tracy is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Minnesota. He has taught both European History and World History surveys throughout his career. His research specialties are early modern European history, with a focus on religious and intellectual history, political history, and financial history. His publications include Erasmus of the Low Countries (1996), Europe’s Reformations, 1450-1650 (2nd ed. 2006), Emperor Charles V, Impresario of War (2002), and The Founding of the Dutch Republic (2008).

The College Board’s Advanced Placement European History Course and Exam Description (APEH), especially in its early sections, seems to reflect an assumption that history serves as a prolegomenon for the understanding of contemporary problems that need to be addressed by society. I think - and I hope many colleagues do as well - that history does not amount to a prescription for present politics, no more than it amounts to a recapitulation of past politics. It is rather a gateway to worlds which have in common only the fact that they differ from ours. In other words, these are worlds from which students can learn.

I decided to read the APEH guidelines without first reading the NAS’s critique of them in The Disappearing Continent. I thus have sole responsibility for the following comments and criticisms, which are limited to the first 30 pages of  the Advanced Placement European History Course and Exam Description:

Historical Thinking Skills [Pages 7-9]

In general, these guidelines are well thought out, clearly expressed, and important for an understanding of how historians work.

My one reservation concerns the section on causation, which contains a subtle contradiction. While the second paragraph quite properly indicates the various ways historians can talk about a sequence of events without venturing anything so definitive as the idea of causation, the first paragraph presumes that historical causes and effects are a given, needing only a distinction between long term and proximate. Think for a moment of the years prior to the First World War: while it is clear that events ABC preceded events DEF, it is not clear that ABC were in any strict sense causes of DEF. Might it be better to call this ‘Historical Explanation,’ starting with the current second paragraph, followed by a slightly less assertive version of the first paragraph?

FIVE THEMES [Pages 10-32]

General comments:

The choice of these themes seems to imply a not uncommon underlying concept of world history in which Europe is assigned the role of Colonizer, imposing an unjust order on the rest of the world. This view of things errs in two ways. It projects back onto Europe itself the dominator/dominated paradigm, effectively reducing the cacophony of European voices over time to a predictable monotone. It also falsifies world history, through its tendency to minimize the collective agency of other societies, making Europe loom larger than it should.

Nowhere is there any specific delimitation of the content of the course. The boundaries between medieval and modern are of course problematic. The past carries into the future, not least in regard to the opening theme on Europe’s interaction with the world; Da Gama, seeking spices and Christians in Calicut, was reliving old dreams. The same point might be made regarding the differences between western/Latin Christian Europe and eastern/Orthodox Europe. Whether one thinks there was already a separation into two worlds after 1054, or that eastern Europe was not “invented” until the 18th Century, any notion of a sharp divide blurs important commonalities. This is not to say there are not good reasons for a course that deals with modern Europe, and mainly with western Europe. But students should understand that choices have been made.

More serious are the substantive omissions.

Nations are still the building blocks of Europe, even under the overarching structures of the EU. Yet there is no mention here of nation-formation, nor is the fact that cross-border conflicts (Theme 4, 3rd paragraph) contributed to the forging of national identities, and were in turn exacerbated by national rivalries. Because of the blood and treasure these wars consumed, they stimulated internal political development, in different ways at different times - toward  parliamentary government, or toward stronger monarchy, or toward wider suffrage. History does not come down to war and politics, but without due attention to war and politics history itself becomes an anemic version of the more theoretical social sciences.

Europeans also fought with Europe’s neighbors. Between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire there were intermittent hostilities for over two centuries; Spain and Spanish Italy battled North African corsairs for three centuries. More recently, the Great Powers have competed for influence in a weakened Ottoman Empire, and then in post-Ottoman lands. Students will have some knowledge of current conflicts in the Middle East, but from the course as proposed here they would not know that the story has earlier chapters.

Finally, there is no reference to European civilization. The concept of “civilization” tout court has had many critics, even before the Huntington-thesis debate, but it also captures a vital strand of historical evidence. One cannot sample what Europeans across the centuries have written without recognizing that they have had and still have a sense of sharing in a common world. This collective identity has changed over time, it has always been amorphous and polysemic, but it has never been invisible, at least not for the last thousand years or so. The idea of a common civilization (or culture, if one prefers) also has heuristic value: it offers a plausible way of talking about the inter-connectedness of autonomous dimensions of life that are often separated (as in the five themes) for greater clarity of exposition – politics, economics, religion, gender, etc.

Theme 1: Interaction of Western Europe and the World [Pages 12-15]

In light of the second paragraph above, there might usefully be a brief opening paragraph, situating the course on the hither side of two important though problematic conceptual boundaries – modern/medieval, and west/east.

Page 12: “Beginning in the 15th century Were Europeans driven [to overseas expansion] primarily by the desire for more direct and secure trade routes, by the pursuit of new commercial wealth, or by religious zeal?

Instead of suggesting that one must choose among possible motivations for overseas enterprises, is it not simpler to suggest that people can have many reasons for doing something?

Page 12: “new complex trade systemsprofoundly affected European prosperity…”

See below, comment on 1st paragraph of Theme 2; here, ‘profoundly affected the European economy’ (e.g., flow of specie) would be better.

Page 12: “The encounters with non-European peoples profoundly affected European trade, social life, and ideas.”

Seems rather pale; how about ‘compelled Europeans to rethink their understanding of human nature and human society’?

Page 12: “With their American colonies…”

It seems the focus of this paragraph is on the impact Europeans had on the rest of the world between about 1500 and 1800. The slave trade indeed changed fundamentally the history of Africa and the Americas, but the Americas were changed even more fundamentally by the implantation of settler colonies and the growth of creole colonies. Why discuss only one of these processes, not both? This curricular decision suggests that it is a purpose of the course is to condemn the evils of the (European) past - thus giving our enlightened age a collective pat on the back.

Page 12: “… these Enlightenment principles influenced those who opposed Europes global domination.”  

The language implies that one has to start with the correct ideas in order to reach the right conclusion. Edmund Burke, not exactly a partisan of Enlightenment ideas, was a prominent critic of imperial policy, in the American colonies and later in Bengal.

Page 13: “…In conquered territories, Europeans established new administrative, legal, and cultural institutions, and restructured colonial economies to meet European needs. These actions often led to a decolonization movement…”

In what sense were pioneering indigenous movements in India, Ghana and Algeria ‘led to’ by the developments mentioned?

Page 13: “…the migration of non-European people into Europe began to create uncertainties about European identity…”

This will be, for students, the first inkling that Europeans had an identity about which to be uncertain; a strange way to proceed.

Theme 2: Poverty and Prosperity [Pages 16-19]

Page 16: “In the centuries after 1450 Wealth from commerce supportedthe growth of industrial capitalism…”

Quite right, but one might note that commercial wealth seems to have relatively little to do with overseas trade;  cf. the argument that England’s astounding prosperity in the 18th century was based on domestic and European, not colonial trade.

Page 16: “Commercial wealth helped transform subsistence agriculture…”

There is plenty of evidence for an agricultural revolution, starting from the Low Countries, that long preceded the Industrial Revolution. It also seems to be clear now that peasants across Europe had wider access to markets (and credit) than had previously been thought. More generally, this section takes too little notice of the countryside. The often involuntary migration to cities that made industrialization possible reflected major changes in rural life.

Page 16: “Large scale production required capital investment, which led to the development of capitalism…”

In other words, there was capital, and there were capitalists [cf. the Dutch word ‘kapitalist,’ as of ca. 1600), but there was as yet no capitalism. What about the idea of commercial capitalism? Does one imagine that the Fuggers (for example) operated in a pre-capitalist economy?

Page 16: “…a seeming breakthrough of the Malthusian trap…”

Why the qualification?  

Page 16: “Industrialization generated unprecedented levels of material prosperity for some…”

Does this mean, for those living in industrialized societies, as would make sense? Or is it being suggested that industrial workers never did prosper?

Page 16: “Prosperity was never equally distributed…”

 It’s difficult to imagine how the language of this paragraph would be different if written by a Socialist. There were different perspectives then, and there are different interpretations now.

Page 16: “…Marxism inspired working class movements and revolutions to overthrow the capitalist system.’”

There were numerous revolutions during this period, but, apart from the German Revolution of 1919, it’s hard to think of what can properly be called a Marxist-inspired workers’ revolution. In the broad scheme of things, would it not be more important to mention (e.g.) the emergence of Socialist or Social Democratic parties?

Page 17: “Soviet Russia and its post-World War II satellites represented one path…”

This resembles the ideas of pre-1990 political scientists who spoke of East and West as developing two different but equally plausible economic systems. Might it not be worth mentioning that the Soviet economic path has led to a dead end?

Theme 3: Objective Knowledge and Subjective Visions [Pages 20-23]

The language of the title effectively asserts the superiority of knowledge that can be called objective, and the inferiority of learned arguments or religious/philosophical beliefs. ‘Science and Learning’ would be a more neutral description for this subject matter.

Page 20: “Starting in the 15th century, European thinkers began developing new methods for arriving at objective truth…”

This paragraph seems to reflect an outdated view of the history of science, in which experimentation was seen as the driving force for progress. More recent views also stress the importance of theory, including scholastic critiques of Aristotle’s theory of motion that were known to Galileo. The famous experiment involving weights dropped from the leaning tower of Pisa was conducted not by Galileo but by one of his Aristotelian critics; the weights in fact hit the ground at different times, but Galileo reasoned that it did not matter, because the tower was not high enough for a true experiment.

Page 20: “Although most early modern Europeans continued to rely on religious authority and ancient texts…”

The one-dimensional focus on empiricism blots out a feature of this period that was, for this period, more important than the growth of science, namely, that important discoveries were made by looking at old texts in new ways, e.g. by reading Scripture in the original Greek or Hebrew, or by interpreting Roman Law in its historical context. This whole section seems to reflect an idea not of seeking to understand the past on its own terms, but rather of mining the past for traces of what is seen as important today.

Page 20: “Artists, musicians, and writers also employed empirical and quantitative methods to abstract the notions of space, time, and sound in new cultural movements such as the Renaissance.

Are we to think, as is suggested by this sentence, that e.g. Renaissance artists are worthy of note only insofar as they in some way appropriate scientific methods?

Theme 4: States and Other Institutions of Power [Pages 24-28]

Page 24: “After 1450 These [new sovereign] states asserted a monopoly over law and the management of all institutions, including the church.

This statement is quite simply false. States controlled the appointment of bishop/church leaders in Catholic as well as Protestant territories, but in both Protestant and Catholic important matters were dealt with by independent church courts. States attempted to impose orthodoxy, but usually left it to church officials to define what was orthodox. Since European states lived beyond their income, every state was heavily dependent on private credit markets, the operation of which lay beyond the treasury’s reach. Many states (France included) had provincial parliaments that restricted how far the prince’s writ might run. Among states not having formally organized provinces, some had national parliaments (England, Castile until around 1650, Sweden until a century or so later).

Page 24: “Absolute monarchies concentrated all authority in a single person.”

Nowadays, a historian who contends that absolute monarchy existed in fact as well as in theory has to bring forward strong reasons for doing so. Some Russianists (not all) think that the Russia of Ivan IV or Peter or Catherine was an exception. The more limited concept of Enlightened Despotism is perhaps more defensible. But if one looks for example at recent work on 17th or 18th century France, the prevailing emphasis is on a still-divided authority in which elites shared. It seems Toqueville was right when he identified centralization as a product more of the Revolution than of the Ancien Regime.

Page 24: “After World War I  totalitarian regimes threatened parliamentary governments.”

Rather like European identity in Theme 1, parliaments appear in the story only at the moment they are called into question. This is to run history backwards, as in Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento.

Theme 5: Individual and Society [Pages 29-32]

The emphasis of this section is on how people were subjected to and then reacted against various controls, with little or no reference to how they understood their world. Should the past be presented as a morass of restrictions from which the present generation is fortunate to have escaped? It seems likely that many 18-year-olds already see the past in more or less this way, without any encouragement. What needs to be pointed out to them is that they might find it interesting to visit the past, and learn about ways of thinking with which they might not be familiar.

Page 29: “With the advent of the Reformation, new Protestant denominations clashed with the Catholic Church…”

Even in a mainly secular Europe, the consequences of Reformation-era divisions are still evident. Why did Protestants and Catholics clash? Was it merely a power struggle? Or were issues involved that have hitherto escaped notice in the five themes? It really did matter to people of this era what one believed and how one worshipped, to the point that not a few were willing to die for their faith. Even in a general course, the question requires more than a passing mention;  a conscientious instructor will want to venture into the perhaps unfamiliar domain of theology.

Page 29: “Demographic growth…”

From this paragraph one would never guess that the 19th century was among other things an era of religious revival, or that, in many countries, popular religious parties competed with socialists for the loyalty of industrial workers.

Page 29: “Early industrialism negatively affected the working classes…”

Quite so, and not just from working conditions, but also from the experience of being uprooted from a traditional rural life. But it is equally true to say that (for various reasons) workers greatly benefitted from the subsequent development of industrialization. Does the decision to include one generalization but not the other reflect a historical logic, or an agenda?

Image Credit: Public Domain.

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