Photo via the Department of Education
This fall, 500,000 American high school students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) US History will be taught from an entirely redesigned curriculum. Instead of quizzing students on presidential trivia and the heroic exploits of our founding fathers, the new test will ask students to think more critically about America’s past. Students will learn, for instance, how racism was a foundational ideology of the early colonists and that immigrants have long been exploited for their labor.
This all seems entirely appropriate for an AP history class, which is after all intended to offer challenging coursework to gifted high school students on their way to college. Colonists in America killed off indigenous peoples and enslaved men, women and children from Africa; it’s not an anti-American stretch to call them racists, even if it’s a blow to the national ego. But to hear some conservatives describe it, our best and brightest are being taught to hate their homeland.
Peter Wood of the right-wing National Association of Scholars calls the new test “a briefing document on progressive and leftist views of the American past,” which is to say: bad. Glenn Beck’s been nursing public outrage all summer, while Concerned Women for America, a Christian group, is encouraging its members to complain to the College Board, the nonprofit that drafts the AP exam.
The Republican National Committee (RNC), meanwhile, is accusing the College Board of presenting a “radical” and “inaccurate” version of US history. It’s demanding that the new curriculum be changed to “accurately reflect US history without political bias.”
Ken Mercer, a Republican member of the Texas School Board, is especially worked up by the new AP guidelines. He told me that he’s trying to delay their implementation in Texas until the College Board balances out all the “negative stuff” about America. He can’t recall much about his own high school history class, but he told me that learning about all the “great American battles” helped him develop his own sense of patriotism.
“Those great generals in the Civil War, crushing Germany in World War II, that’s all that really stands out to me,” said Mercer. The problem with the new curriculum, in his view, is that “there’s nothing in there about our military and all those victories.”
When the RNC accuses the AP test of “political bias,” what they really mean is that the test has the wrong kind of bias. Republicans like Mercer want history to be a celebration of America and a confirmation of American exceptionalism—the notion that America is unique among nation-states in its commitment to liberty, which it has a right to spread around the globe. This version of history teaches that America is flawed but lovable and capable of correcting its minor errors. In this fairytale version of history, there are no winners or losers; we all are blessed to be born in America.
A Republican history book. Photo via Flickr user tom1231
There are of, course, other ways to understand US history. Prominent historians like Charles Beard, and later Howard Zinn and Michael Parenti, have argued that American history is, at its core, the story of a bunch of rich white guys and how they pillaged their way to the top. The best-known example is Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, a disturbing book that tells the American experience from the perspective of those left out of traditional history books: the poor and disenfranchised. For Zinn, the only thing exceptional about America is the exceptional volume of suffering endured by Native Americans, blacks, workers, and immigrants on whose back this country was built.
Despite what some conservatives suggest, the new AP curriculum is no People’s History. But it’s also not just feel-good patriotism given a historical gloss, which is enough to make some people angry.
One critique is that the new curriculum does not specifically mention certain Americans that we all are supposed to love, such as Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. It “sidesteps any discussion of the personalities and achievements of American giants whose courage and conviction helped build the United States,” complained Jane Robinson and Larry Krieger in a widely-shared article for the conservative Heartland Institute.
This critique doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. David Kennedy teaches history at Stanford University and is the author of American Pageant, the most-used AP US History textbook. He’s also an advisor to the College Board and served on the committee that oversaw the curriculum overhaul. He told me that for years he’d been hearing complaints from AP teachers across the country that the old curriculum required students to memorize too many names, dates, and laws, while not allowing time for historical context. Students just didn’t have room in their brains for all that information so, this time around, teachers can choose which topics and historical figures to emphasize in class.
At the same time, AP classes are required to assign reading from a college-level textbook, all of which include detailed accounts of the founding fathers and their exploits. So students who do the reading will not miss out on Franklin, the kite, the printing press, or the sexual adventures in Paris.
What seems to bother conservatives is that some high schoolers will be exposed to an unvarnished version of America’s founding and expansion. The curriculum notes, for instance, that Manifest Destiny—which colonizers believed entitled them to indigenous people’s land, from sea to shining sea—was premised on a belief in “white racial superiority.” Stanley Kurtz, an influential columnist for the conservative National Review, calls the new standards an attack on the “traditional way” of teaching history, which he takes to mean memorizing names, dates and touching stories about the founding fathers. By contextualizing Manifest Destiny within the rampant racism of 19th century America, the new test “forces teachers to train their students in a leftist, blame-America-first reading of history,” he complained.
The test, of course, doesn't force teachers to do anything of the sort. It was designed by a group of mainstream American historians and educators, not the Black Panther Party. What is true is that the curriculum asks students to view American history more thematically and, in so doing, encourages them to pick up on patterns of oppression, exploitation, and exclusion that run throughout our nation’s past. The test emphasizes historical themes like identity, ideas, work, and power, that can be leveraged to either celebrate or critique America’s past. An attentive student may realize, with the help of these handy themes, that historically xenophobia is an idea that people in power exploit to get immigrants to work for way less money than they deserve.
The AP exam might, for example, ask students to explain the factors that contributed to an iconic image from history. Photo by Jacob Riis, via Wikimedia
Some students may even begin to spot parallels between their coursework and contemporary events. The section on World War II, for example, suggests that teachers balance discussions of American military and geopolitical expansion with the restriction of rights at home and the internment of Japanese Americans. Does war and the maintenance of an empire abroad lead to a loss of civil rights at home?
According to AP teachers, the new test is designed to encourage students to develop their own perspectives grounded in historical evidence. The new sample essay questions released by the College Board, for instance, emphasize what teachers call “historical thinking skills.” Students could be asked to assess whether the establishment of the USA was a legitimate “revolution,” or weigh in on the merits of America’s expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It’s not surprising that the RNC wants students to become patriots who buy into American exceptionalism. But for teachers, exploring the unsavory side of US history is a pedagogical necessity. The notion that history curricula should be "rebalanced” at the request of politicians strikes many AP teachers as an inappropriate and dangerous violation of educational autonomy.
Richard Stewart, an AP US History teacher at Choate Rosemary Hall, a prestigious boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut, thinks that the critics of the new curriculum are political opportunists who don’t understand how the test works. He’s been teaching the exam for over 25 years, trains other AP teachers for the College Board, and says he has studied the new guidelines closely. He laughs off the suggestion that the test is “anti-American,” saying that “some people may want this to be a course in patriotism, but that’s not what I’m here to do.”
The College Board has been incredibly accommodating to its critics. College Board President David Coleman labeled the controversy a matter of “principled confusion.” Though the College Board did not respond to request for comment, Coleman has chatted on the phone several times with Ken Mercer of the Texas School Board, and tried to reassure him that the test isn’t “anti-American.” The College Board also released a sample test and a “fact-sheet” to dispel some of the misinformation about the curriculum.
Undeterred, conservatives are dialing up the rhetoric. Last week, the RNC requested that the federal government withdraw financial support from the College Board, and the Concerned Women for America is circulating an action alert asking that its members threaten to take their kids out of AP classes if the curriculum isn’t revised. But despite the criticism, the curriculum is scheduled to take effect on time at the beginning of this school year. Come September, around half-a-million college-bound youngsters will start drilling for a standardized test that many Republicans think will encourage them to hate America.
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