Push-Back on APUSH

Robert L. Paquette

 The College Board’s Advanced Placement Program began in the mid-1950s. History numbered among the first subjects for which the College Board designed basic equipment to guide high-school teachers in preparing “college level curricula and standards that could be instituted at the high school level.”  Over the years, the equipment furnished to high schools became more detailed and extensive in laying out historical themes and objectives.  In 2014, the College Board rolled out a redesigned, 100-plus page “curriculum framework” for Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH).    Critics, particularly those on the right, detect within APUSH a thinly-veiled political agenda. The advanced history advanced in these pages carries a range of prompts about identities, social justice, and exploitation.  The words “race,” “class,” and “gender,” for example, appear dozens of times.  “Property” and “patriotism” are mentioned twice; the Bible, once; “honor” and “virtue,” not at all.  Does APUSH’s operational manual aim to elevate teachers’ and students’ understanding of American history or to smuggle into the classroom, Howard Zinn-style, a useable past, one tailor-made to advance identity politics and a progressive ideology?

History Wars?

The New York Times entered the debate, calling it “The New History Wars.”  For the defense, it recruited Dr. James R. Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, the flagship organization of the historical profession, to explain why there was nothing in APUSH for the public to get all hot and bothered about.  The materials, he contended, encourage students to “dialogue” with the past.  If Americans are to make sense of their sons and daughters dying “at home and abroad,” he began, alluding, it appears, to casualties in the war on terror, then students need the kind of “unvarnished” history encouraged by APUSH.  Lumping together its critics as essentially “ill-informed” patriotic chest-thumpers, Grossman called on them to stand down, disarm, leave the field, and return home with heads bowed on parole. “[L]earning history,” he declared, crossing swords with a straw man, “means engaging with aspects of the past that are troubling, as well as those that are heroic.”  Since history, like every other discipline, has always been revising itself, Grossman asserted, there was really nothing distorted or radical, in the College Board’s redesigned equipment.

 Nowhere in his op-ed did Grossman attempt to explain how historians, in their acts of “reconsideration and re-evaluation,” handle relativism in determining which historical reconstructions are superior to others.  Nowhere did he speak of the pursuit of truth, or the need to draw a clarifying line between scholarship and activism, between ideology and evolving forms of explanation. Nowhere did he mention that standards of excellence, the original raison d'être of advanced placement courses, by their very nature are hierarchical and exclusionary. Nowhere did he express concern that the kind of bottom-up social history, so regnant in the postmodern academy, can be as distorting as the elitist history written from the top down.  APUSH contains an “equity” policy statement.   Its “guiding principle” seeks “the elimination of barriers that restrict access to AP for students from ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups that have been “traditionally underserved.”  Critics worry that the authors of the redesigned manual have smuggled the guiding principle of the equity policy into the proposed portrayal of the American pageant. 

As if to sanctify the kind of undue present-mindedness, which should be the bane of good historians, Grossman himself reminded his audience that non-whites compose a majority of students who currently attend America’s public schools. One doubts—or at least hopes— that he would condemn the kind of cherry-picking of the past that could lead in America’s more ethnically and racially diverse classrooms to cheap sentimental pronouncements about the forces of light doing battle with the forces of darkness, what Herbert Butterfield termed the Whig interpretation of history.  Pupils, whether traditionally underserved or not, lacking historical skills and imagination, face a steep climb in trying to grasp the complexity of worlds not their own, populated by strangers about whom judgments must be made according to appropriate standards.   Judging peoples of the past according to intellectual and moral horizons that they could not possibly have known will not do.   Imagine, for example, a vital lesson on the framing of the Constitution.  How does an honest AP teacher reconcile its vital principles with the fact that the majority of the framers were slaveholders? The worry is less about the varnishing of the picture, which at least implies a transparency that may even help to bring out the colors, but a type of shady treatment that converts the existing picture for the sake of expediency, partisanship, or sentimentality into chiaroscuro with stick figures.  In the name of “diversity,” students too often receive, paradoxically enough, an abridgement that insults the actual diversity of good history.

No History in College: AP Only

Questions about advanced placement history courses have come up any number of times during my thirty-plus year career as a professional historian at an elite liberal arts college. Bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of elite private liberal arts colleges today have no course American history requirement.  Bear in mind that a majority of the most esteemed private liberal arts colleges in the country, places like Swarthmore, Amherst, and Bowdoin, graduate history majors who have not taken one American history course.  The last concerted effort that many of this country’s brightest young minds have had to study American history was in their AP American history course.  At Hamilton College, my colleagues and I over decades have generally agreed, whatever our political differences, on the need for remedial work to undo the damage of AP history courses.  Thus, at present, Hamilton College undergraduates can claim one credit toward graduation for an AP history course if they received a score of 4 or 5 on the test but only after they have also passed a 100-level introductory course with a grade of at least a C-.  The credit cannot be used toward fulfilling the course requirements in a history major or minor.  Some of the best students whom I have taught and who graduated with honors in history never took an AP history course in high school.  Some were home-schooled.

 Parents concerned about the impact of APUSH’s operational manual should think about how it will be used in practical operation.  Some AP American history teachers have had exemplary training in the discipline; others have not.  In many cases, including in private schools, the history teacher may never have taken a single college-level history course.  A number of those who majored in history at elite colleges and universities may have avoided American history altogether. A shrinking number of colleges and universities require their majors to take courses in historiography and historical method.  History moves in unpredictable ways, its lessons, drawn by scholars from evidence reflective not of an objective reality but a mediated one, hold no ready formulas for predicting what’s ahead.  Similar structures yield differing behaviors. Between structure and process, on the one hand, and behavior, on the other, mental worlds exist that a historian begins to understand only by shedding a good deal of his own prejudicial mental baggage.

History and Social Activism

The broad appeal of Howard Zinn’s Marxist baby-talk in AP history classes stems not only from the appeal of  the politics of the his best-selling People’s History of the United States to activist teachers, but its service in easing bored and indifferent students through the past by personalizing and simplifying it through trivialization.  The current emphasis on “identities” often boils down in the classroom to the instructor’s attempt to get the students to empathize with the personal feelings of a favored group of historical actors extracted from the ranks of the oppressed.  While these voices may elicit students’ sympathy, perhaps even guilt, they do little to enhance understanding of the proper yardsticks by which the past must be measured so that it does not become vulgarized.

More than a decade ago, long before APUSH’s redesign, I published a letter in a local newspaper that seconded the call of a concerned parent of a child in the local public high school— which by reputation was regarded as one of the better high schools in the area—about the quality of the instruction.  My oldest child had entered an AP American history course. He wasn’t doing particularly well, and the kind of comments he received on his written assignments suggested that the teacher had a political axe to grind. The teacher drew heavily, as it turned out, on Zinn’s People’s History in shaping assignments. 

I scheduled a meeting with the superintendent of schools.  He brought along with him the principal of the high school to hear me out.  I had requested a copy of the teacher’s resume; school officials refused to supply one.  On my own, however, I found out that the fellow had graduated from a rather nondescript college without ever signing up for a history course. With a thick file of material brought to the meeting, I documented my concerns as both a parent and professional historian about the use of Zinn’s text and the partisan quality of the instruction that seemed to be informed by it. A lengthy back and forth ensued. The high-school principal insisted in words that many others have echoed, that Zinn’s People’s History merely offered a supplement to other readings so that students might have “another perspective.” 

Although the superintendent failed to deliver on his promise for a subsequent meeting, he did follow-up with a communication about the use of Zinn’s book.  In effect, he justified its use by finding out through the head of some regional association that it was one of the more widely used texts in AP history courses in upstate New York.  Several angry letters to the newspaper in defense of the teacher, whom I had not publicly named, proved equally revelatory.  One graduate of the high school admitted that the AP teacher was conspicuously biased to the political left, but added it should not matter because, after all, all history is biased no matter who is teaching it.  Another former student who had prospered in the teacher’s class and went on to Oberlin College confessed that the teacher’s progressive politics were no secret to the class and that he should be exculpated for his alleged misdeeds since he never forced anyone to share his political opinions, the politicized glosses on homework notwithstanding.  That the political opinions of a teacher, whether of the left or the right, so obviously and forcefully stated and oft-repeated in the classroom, might have had a chilling impact on some students to the point of actually deterring them from creative expression seems not to have crossed her mind.  Her professed rapture for Zinn and his book proved so exquisite it ended up tucked into one of my files:   “Reading Howard Zinn, widely recognized as this country’s most credible revisionist historian,” she wrote, “was an eye-opening experience that taught me to love history and to seek out classes and lectures that would continue this passion.”  Note the emphasis on personal feeling, which the academy itself is enshrining as the measure of historical experience.

Exacavating for the Facts

 In speaking to students about history in my own introductory classes, I often deploy what I call the metaphor of the miner.  Learning history begins as an adventure, like the miner approaching the darkened entrance of a cave.  And just as the miner once inside the cave must be prepared with hard hat, head-lamps, picks, and hammers with which to extract precious ore, so too must the students in opening a book or essay be properly prepared to identify and extract valuable nuggets of information.  Once the miner exits the cave, the hard part begins because the miner must unload what he has extracted to weigh and assay it.   Once students extract nuggets of information from their sources, they must learn how to appraise them, apportion them, and configure them, connecting the bits and pieces with a measuring system of their own devise, so that the result exhibits to the viewer a meaningful pattern with explanatory power.  In speaking once to a reporter for Inside Higher Ed about the difference between an activist and a scholar, I referenced the study of slavery.  At bottom, like many of the most important things in life, I told him, slavery is a relation.  A history that leaves either part of the relation out of the story or slights the process driven by the parties’ dynamic interaction cannot qualify as good or adequate history.   A scholar has a feedback loop in revising interpretations in light of new evidence; an activist uses ideology to insulate himself from challenging evidence.

While APUSH’s authors encourage students to “challenge narratives,” they neglect to provide them and their teachers with the kind of effective tools that would make the challenge more than a demolition.  APUSH needs, front and center, a unit on historiography and historical method.  Nor does the revised design of APUSH provide much guidance on the meaning of key concepts like capitalism, ideology, theology, and nationalism. Cicero insisted that “every systematic development of any subject ought to begin with a definition, so that everyone may understand what the discussion is about.”   Good advice.  For APUSH, however, advice overlooked. 

History and Group Identity

At the top of the list of themes and objectives to be studied, APUSH places “identities.”  It offers little guidance, however, as to how high-school teachers should approach this problematic term conceptually. Individual human beings have existed throughout time as congeries of differing identities. Operative categories today may not have pride of place in the past or may not have existed in the minds of peoples of the past at all.  Penetrating into the identities of historical actors amounts to one of the most difficult and delicate tasks of disentanglement in historical enquiry.   Given APUSH”s chorusing of race, class, and gender throughout many of the units, one can legitimately wonder whether the intent of the design is to enhance understanding of identities as they were constructed by peoples of the past or is it to impose presentist categories  in order to accord with current political commitments? Forms of prejudice like ethnocentrism, which can be seen as universal phenomenon, appear to be a debility that largely afflicted persons of European descent. On one page of a unit dealing with European expansion, for example, the authors assert that Spanish and Portuguese explorers had “little experience dealing with people who were different from themselves.”  Compared to whom?  Kongos?  Aztecs?  Catawbas?

 Lest teachers have difficulty deciphering such complex patterns for their students, never fear.  They can always rely on Howard Zinn.


Robert L. Paquette is a charter fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization in Clinton, NY

Image: Public Domain

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