A few months ago, in an essay at the History News Network, University of Colorado professor Fred Anderson defended the work of the new AP U.S. History Curriculum framework (APUSH) from (some of) its critics. Anderson, one of the historians who served on the committee that formulated the new guidelines, described his committee’s goal as creating an AP curriculum that would result in high school students “receiving instruction equivalent to lower-division history survey courses offered in university and college settings.” Students, he reasoned, need to “think historically” rather than focus excessively on factual details. The new guidelines, Anderson promised, would “make the AP U.S. history course a more rigorous reflection of the current state of knowledge and practice in our discipline.”
Who could object?
In fact, the APUSH guidelines should worry state legislators, parents, and educators alike. As the panelists hoped to impose college disciplinary fads on the course, it’s worth recalling that AP U.S. history is a high school history class, taught by high school teachers—who are subject to curricular guidelines set by state education boards, not college professors.
Anderson oddly claimed that “the Commission members did not feel that the changes we recommended would or should affect any state’s (much less any school district’s) support for Advanced Placement.” This statement demonstrates either extraordinary naïveté or willful blindness. If, in fact, the APUSH guidelines seek to move the U.S. history class away from priorities set by state education boards, how could the changes not affect state or local support for AP history?
Not inaccurately, Anderson argued that critics of APUSH are also concerned “with the current state of American historical scholarship.” I’ve often commented on these patterns, but a quick summary: over the past generation, faculty positions in U.S. history topics deemed “traditional” (political, military, constitutional, and diplomatic) have plunged; and oftentimes even when searches occurred in these sub-disciplines, the preference has been for scholars who have “re-visioned” to place more emphasis on race, class, or gender. This “re-visioning” has occurred even as history departments have aggressively hired in race, class, gender, and ethnicity in U.S. history—so the college study of the field is now heavily, and increasingly, skewed toward these themes.
Formulated in a collaborative fashion by educators, the public, and state political officials (the precise procedures vary from state to state), state U.S. history guidelines envision far greater coverage of “traditional” topics. A few states—Texas is the most obvious example—have lost sight of their missions, and have instead elected to impose a biased version of the American past upon their state’s students. But most state education boards operate in good faith.
The guidelines from my home state of Maine, for instance, require that high school history courses must “explain that the study of government includes the structures, functions, institutions, and forms of government and the relationship of government to citizens in the United States and in other regions of the world”; examine “federalism, and consent of the governed as put forth in founding documents”; describe “the purpose, structures, and processes of the American political system”; and evaluate “the relationship between the government and the individual as evident in the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and landmark court cases.”
New York’s guidelines hold that students will understand “the necessity for establishing governments; the governmental system of the United States and other nations; the United States Constitution; the basic civic values of American constitutional democracy; and the roles, rights, and responsibilities of citizenship, including avenues of participation”; and analyze “important debates in American history (e.g., ratification of the United States Constitution, abolition of slavery, regulation of big business, restrictions on immigration, the New Deal legislation, women’s suffrage, United States involvement in foreign affairs and wars), focusing on the opposing positions and the historical evidence used to support these positions”; and “analyze key Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, Dred Scott v. Sanford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Miranda v. Arizona, and Roe v. Wade) in terms of the ongoing struggle to realize democratic ideals; explore how these decisions embody constitutional civic values and the evolution and application of constitutional values within American political, economic, and social life.”
The vision of U.S. history that APUSH seeks to import does not—indeed cannot—reflect these state guidelines. In a typical college History department, a student can graduate without reading any foundational documents from the constitutional era. Depending on course enrollment patterns, a student’s sole exposure to U.S. involvement in World War II could be in a social history class that looks at women workers during the war. And most History students can graduate (depending on their course choices) without ever studying a single Supreme Court decision, or examining in any specific detail the public policies of a single President.
As envisioned by APUSH, then, AP U.S. History classes would be based on quite different curricular priorities than those mandated by state education boards. How could this approach not undermine legislative support for Advanced Placement?
The APUSH recommendations could have advanced the committee’s agenda by proudly explaining why AP U.S. history students should learn less about the Constitutional era, or the ideological and policy legacies of key Presidents, or U.S. involvement in world affairs. Instead, the committee justified its proposals through educational jargon.
The Fetish for “Skills”
The committee document strongly downplayed content by emphasizing “historical thinking skills” (the words “skill” or “skills” appear 136 times in the report), ostensibly as a way to relieve teachers “from the pressure to cover an unlimited amount of content.” (The AP History exam is, of course, a content exam.) In the event, previous AP guidelines did not require teachers to cover “an unlimited amount of content.”
In the event, teachers can’t sit around all academic year instructing in “historical skills”: they must provide some content, if only to provide come context for students who have scant background knowledge in U.S. history. What might this content entail? If AP history teachers are expected to teach, for instance, the “historical skill” of exposing students to primary documents, how many teachers would do so by having students immerse themselves in (say) Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention; and how many would fulfill the requirement through the diary of a female labor leader?
The APUSH approach implies that there isn’t much difference between these two alternatives. Items that the APUSH report lists as possibly relevant to one or more themes but not required for the students to know range from John Locke, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, Gettysburg, and Watergate—to the architecture of Spanish missions, Mariano Vallejo, the Ghost Dance Movement, and Edward Hopper. But unlike the College Board committee, I suspect very few state education boards would consider Gettysburg on the one hand and Mariano Vallejo on the other equally relevant in the study of U.S. history.
Anderson suggested that the APUSH changes would maximize the flexibility offered to high school teachers; rather than overwhelm them with specific items that must be taught, the committee recommended “seven overarching themes that should become the organizational backbone of the course.” These themes, however, would produce a course heavily weighted toward social history and a race/class/gender interpretation of American history.
Internationalizing and Ideology
The APUSH report also envisions “internationalizing” U.S. history. Legislators and state education officials might assume this proposal means an appreciable increase in coverage of diplomatic history. No such increase exists in the APUSH recommendations. Instead, APUSH seems to build off the work of NYU professor Thomas Bender, who has argued that using this framework is a way to incorporate “some of the most innovative and exciting scholarship in American history,” which “has been framed in ways that do not necessarily tie it to the nation-state—work on gender, migrations, diasporas, class, race, ethnicity, and other areas of social history.” Of course.
A final note: while the recommendations seek to apply the changes in college U.S. history—a focus on race, class, gender, and ethnicity, and an accompanying decline, “re-visioning,” or near-elimination of political, constitutional, military, and diplomatic history—there’s scant evidence that APUSH sought to apply an ideological litmus test to the American past, as for instance, the Texas state education board recently has done. That said: it hardly seems unreasonable to observe that an effect, if not the intent, of the new curriculum will be to present a more left-leaning view of the American past. (For the record, I’m a center-left Democrat who was an Obama donor in both 2008 and 2012.)
The APUSH report reflected the consensus in the contemporary academy; little academic resistance thus can be expected. If its proposals are to be blocked or modified, resistance must come from the public and state education boards whose role in the curricular process the APUSH members seek to displace.
KC Johnson is professor of US history at Brooklyn College.
Image: Public Domain