Look What the College Board Has Done to U.S. History

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on July 2, 2014.

The College Board recently released its new AP U.S. History (APUSH) Curriculum Framework.  It is, in many respects, a dispiriting document.  A great deal of important U.S. history is given cursory treatment and some ideological themes are sounded rather loudly.

In view of the many, many faults in American K-12 education, should the College Board’s hapless revision of the Advanced Placement framework in American history occasion special concern?  My answer is a qualified yes.  There are bigger problems but this one of those small problems that signifies larger things.  Our national memory is slipping.

The New, New, New U.S. AP History

AP courses undergo frequent revision.  The newest revision, however, is radical.  The College Board has thrown away its old five-page topical outline for the course and replaced it with 80-page analytic exposition of the course and a 40-page exposition of the exam with each question keyed to “learning objectives,” “historical thinking skills,” and “key concepts” in the course.  Lack of thoroughness is not among its faults.

Jane Robbins (senior fellow at the American Principles Project) and Larry Krieger (a retired AP U.S. history teacher) have emerged as the leading critics of the new U.S. history course.  In March they posted an article, “New Advanced Placement Framework Distorts America’s History,” and Krieger followed up in April with a reply to a defender of the new curriculum in, “Yes, the New AP Framework Does Distort U.S. History.”  Robbins and Krieger’s analyses are concise and compelling—and have been, of course, either brushed off or ignored by the education establishment.

I don’t want to take up much space recapitulating their points, since I have more of my own and their articles are easily accessible.  But in brief compass, Robbins and Krieger:

  • Note that the College Board is, effectively, substituting a detailed course design for the broad framework it used to provide.  The new plan is still presented as a “framework” the way the Common Core is presented as “standards,” but in both cases the label is hollow.  The College Board is becoming a “de facto legislature for the nation’s public and private high schools.”
  • Argue that the new framework relentlessly advances a negative view of America.  It dwells, for example, on the “rigid racial hierarchy” of colonial times and “ignores the United States’ founding principles.”   The Declaration of Independence gets short shrift.
  • Observe that the Framework erases major figures from U.S. history, including Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, and drastically minimizes others, such as George Washington, who is glimpsed only in a passing mention of his Farewell Address.

Elsewhere, Krieger describes the APUSH as “an imposition” of a “biased interpretation of American history upon the states and local school districts.”  Technically, the schools are free to teach AP U.S. history any way they want, but the reality is that the schools must prepare the students who take the AP courses for the AP exams, which are completely under the control of the College Board.  Thus the 98-page APUSH framework will determine what is actually taught.

What Does APUSH Teach?

It isn’t correct to say that students who study this material won’t learn any American history.  They would indeed learn quite a bit about broad-stroke economic developments, class envy, racial struggle, women’s rights, and the rise of the Progressive movement.  These are all worth knowing about.  But an AP history course that is routed towards these destinations and that passes by nearly everything else with a glance out of the side window does a serious disservice to the subject.

Robbins and Krieger succinctly complain that “the new framework relentlessly advances a negative view of America,” and that it dwells on the “rigid racial hierarchy” of colonial times and “ignores the United States’ founding principles.”   They complain as well that it erases major figures from U.S. history, including Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, and drastically minimizes others, such as George Washington.  They are right on all these points, but I think there is a little more to be said.

The graduates of our “best” liberal arts colleges generally face no general education requirements that require them to study American history.  If they have taken A.P. U.S. History in high school, that will be their baseline knowledge for the rest of their lives.  Their baseline will include  a thorough-going appreciation of how rapacious the European explorers and colonists were; how valiant the Native Americans were in their doomed resistance to the new exploitation; how the colonists ginned up the African slave trade when they found Native Americans unsuitable chattel; and so on.

The politicization of American higher education has continued unabated for the last forty years or so.  When the College Board says it is modifying AP U.S. History to make it like a “comparable college course,” I regret to say that that is probably true.

We have alternatives of course.  If someone wants to study American history in fuller form and in less biased renditions, we have libraries full of books to read, and works by some excellent contemporary scholars to plumb.  All is not lost.  Yet for the coming generation of students headed into our best colleges and then out into positions of leadership in our society, a great deal is at risk.  They are smart but ignorant, and their ignorance is of that proud form:  “Ask me anything, and I’ll ace it.”

Image: "Wind-Torn American Flag in High Key - Week #11 in "52 of 2014"" by Austin Kirk // CC BY-SA

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