Last year, we sounded the alarm against the “dramatic, unilateral change taking place in the content of the College Board’s Advanced Placement U.S. history (APUSH) course.” That change, we warned, lacks balance and “consistently emphasizes negative events while ignoring positive achievements.” Stanley Kurtz’s analysis of a new framework for U.S. history classes the nation’s top high-school students attend explained that, from the College Board’s revisionist point of view, “the heart of our country’s history lies in the pursuit of empire, the dominion over others.” It degrades our Founding, our heroes, and our cultural achievements.
From the beginning, defenders of the course have dismissed critics as “ill-informed” and “motivated by political partisanship.” Why, The New York Times sniffed, most of these rubes probably haven’t even read the new framework. And while the College Board was eventually forced to acknowledge some problems of leftist bias, it continues to insist that a few revisions (currently due to the public in July) will resolve the situation.
Underlying its defense throughout has been the College Board’s insistence that it is merely attempting to replicate an authentic college course. If this is the way college professors teach American history, they reason, then we must teach it that way in APUSH. High-school students can, after all, earn college credit for testing well on the exams that follow these classes.
But now this narrative has been disrupted.
Tuesday, a group of 55 eminent scholars in American history and political theory released a statement objecting to the new APUSH Framework. (See Peter Berkowitz’s excellent discussion, here.) These scholars are experts and authors on the subject matter, for the most part currently teach on the university level, and are generally not political activists. Their statement provides a compelling critique of the foundations, the philosophies, and the approach of the framework.
These Critics Aren’t Some Fly-by-Nights
The overall problem, the scholars explain, is that the new framework “centralizes control, deemphasizes content, and promotes a particular interpretation of American history.” They object to the College Board’s replacement of a brief topical outline, which allowed teachers to flesh out the course in accordance with their state history standards, with a detailed curriculum framework that dictates what and how American history will be taught. “The result,” they argue, “smacks of an ‘official’ account of the American past.” And this official account is troubling.
A central problem they identify is that organizing the framework around abstract themes—such as “peopling” and “human geography”—“downplay[s] essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution.” Instead, the new lens through which American history will be taught is that of continual conflict among identity groups.
The scholars are particularly alarmed by the framework’s shift from “identity” to “identities.” Rather than focus on the sources of national unity and cohesion, the framework requires teachers to give “special attention . . . to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities.” This focus on what divides rather than unifies, the scholars observe, “does [students], and us, an immense disservice.”
We Want Truth, Not Whitewashing Or Blacklisting
The scholars also lament the de-emphasis on content—the stories of real Americans grappling with real problems and surmounting real challenges. Obliterating these stories, they say, “scrubs away all traces of what used to be the chief glory of historical writing – vivid and compelling narrative – and reduces history to a bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces. . . . No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals.”
Are these scholars pushing a sanitized version of American history, denuded of the negative material on which the framework dwells? To the contrary: “We do not seek to reduce the education of our young to the inculcation of fairy tales, or of a simple, whitewashed, heroic, even hagiographical nationalist narrative. Instead, we support a course that fosters informed and reflective civic awareness, while providing a vivid sense of the grandeur and drama of its subject.”This withering critique demonstrates that, contrary to the College Board’s claims, not all college professors agree with the Progressive nonsense that has become fashionable on too many campuses. As the scholars observe, the College Board is misusing its long-established monopoly to favor that revisionist interpretation and impose it on high-school students. Students who are likely to become our nation’s leaders will emerge from this course—for many of them, the last U.S. history course they will ever take—with a jaundiced view of their country.
It will take more than a few tweaks to the framework to solve this problem. It will take competitors to the College Board, seeking broader perspectives and allowing greater respect for state standards. What could be more American than that?