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Should Americans Accept The College Board’s Deformed History Of Europe?


The American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess and Grant Addison writing at National Review Online give the National Association of Scholars (NAS) credit for pointing out flaws in the College Board’s Advanced Placement European History (APEH) framework. But Hess and Addison are concerned that, after the College Board responded to our critique by making changes, NAS has continued to find significant fault with APEH.

This is familiar territory. A few years ago, NAS drew national attention to flaws in the College Board’s premiere AP framework, the one for U.S. history (APUSH). That framework had stood untouched for decades until the College Board issued a radical revision 2013. The College Board brushed off our criticisms for six months, but as pressure mounted decided in early 2015 that APUSH could stand some improvement.

The changes it made were largely although not entirely cosmetic. Among the most substantive alterations made in that round was restoring the American Founding as a topic in the year-long course on American history for high school juniors. That’s right. The College Board had launched a new curriculum on American history that minimized the importance of the American Founding. What were they thinking?

A History of Cosmetic Revisions to Defective Curricula

We were grateful for the College Board’s 2015 revisions to its 2013 APUSH framework, but mindful that the College Board had changed only the written framework, not the all-important exam that reflects the framework, not the supplementary teaching materials, and not the recommended textbooks. Moreover, the querulous spirit of the 2013 framework remained.

If all you knew of American history was what the College Board put into its 2015 revised framework, you would know that America has always been an aggressively exploitative country dominated by a grasping elite that heedlessly oppressed Native Americans, blacks, women, immigrants, workers, and children. The other details filtered into the framework were subordinate to this rancor.

No sooner had we pointed out the eye-washing than Wall Street Journal deputy editor Daniel Henninger published a column headlined, “Hey, Conservatives, You Won.” Henninger declared that the conservative reaction to APUSH had led to a great victory. The complaining should cease. The Wall Street Journal verdict went a long way towards taking the wind out of the sails of the we-need-deeper-reform movement. To be sure, that movement didn’t go away. We have been working quietly ever since to create an alternative to APUSH.

Why Henninger, and now Hess and Addison, think it is a good idea to give the College Board a high-five for half effort is a mystery to me. But let me return to the question about the 2013 APUSH: What were the architects of that framework thinking?

Same Problems, New Set of Curricula

The same question floats like a dark cloud over the AP European History curriculum. It was launched in fall 2015 and embodied the same biases as the 2013 APUSH. My colleague David Randall captured the spirit of those biases when he observed that College Board’s conception of a year-long course in European history found no room to mention the contributions of either Christopher Columbus or Winston Churchill.

Once again, the College Board heard us and proceeded to make changes. They found some room for Churchill. None, alas, for Columbus. That omission is all the stranger in view of the College Board’s emphasis on the colonial enterprises of European nations.

Writing a curriculum “framework” is no easy task, nor is critiquing one. The framework inevitably tells a story, and the decisions about which details to emphasize, which merely to mention, and which to omit reflect what kind of story is being told. The NAS critique, published as “The Disappearing Continent,” likewise had to follow the details the College Board selected while noting what had gone AWOL. The reader who wants the details can find them there. Here I will mention only the broad outlines.

Some Major Problems with European History Treatment

First, APEH treats European history starting in 1450. The cut-off date is at one level understandable. No single high school course can cover everything. But in this case, APEH leaves all of the classical world and the Middle Ages in obscurity. The Europe that APEH studies is a Europe without Homer, Plato, Virgil, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante. The course begins during the Renaissance, which was a “rebirth” of something or other. It is Europe without Alexander, Caesar Augustus, Constantine, Attila, and Charlemagne.

Note that the standard high school curriculum has no other place for European history prior to 1450, except as a splinter of AP World History, so this truncation of the European past is final. And because hardly any American colleges and universities require students to take European history courses, the AP European history course will be, for most students, the last time they will formerly study the subject. So they will largely pick up their knowledge of the European past from movies and popular culture.

Even starting in 1450, the 2015 version of APEH still manages to bypass the history of liberty, both as a concept and as an evolving set of institutional arrangements. From the Magna Carta (over the time horizon in 1215) to the Glorious Revolution, from the end of the slave trade to the emancipation of the Russian serfs, from the time when people were mainly “subjects” of feudal lords and kings to the time when people were mainly citizens, this great sweep of European history has gone missing from the framework.

Europe is now, as it has been for the last 1,500 years, the site of profound religious conflict. One can hardly make sense of European history without describing the history of religion, but the College Board has tried. Britain appears to have been singled out for especially bare treatment, perhaps because British history is hard to present without a focus on freedom.

The 2015 APEH runs hard against economic freedom as well. The framework had many passages extoling socialism. None for capitalism. European Communist movements were treated with kid gloves. And the idea that Europe was in any manner “exceptional” in world history is nowhere to be found. That European civilization achieved exceptional heights in technology, the arts, education, or any other field of endeavor is, apparently, beyond the scope of what an AP European History framework should consider.

Key Historical Details Are Not Nitpicks

We know that the College Board studied “The Disappearing Continent,” because when it issued revisions to APEH in 2017, it followed many of our detailed criticisms. But as with the 2015 APUSH revisions, the College Board focused far more on the cosmetic than on the deeper thematic problems.

‘Healthy debate’ requires, first, that someone notice the systemic biases, and ‘good history’ requires a picture not bounded by those biases.

Hess and Addison warn that NAS’s newest criticisms “read like quibbles.” In one spot, they find Randall’s complaint about the College Board’s use of Soviet euphemisms as “bizarre.” They characterize our critique as “nitpicky” and “unduly harsh,” and therefore not conducive to “healthy debate” or “good history.”

This is yet another version of Henninger’s “Hey, Conservatives, You Won.” Is it time for NAS to shut up and make nice with the College Board, which has shown its admirable willingness to make concessions? Well, we certainly don’t want to be an organization that trades in quibbles, bizarre complaints, nitpickery, and harshness. The issue is whether the 2017 version of the Advanced Placement European History framework stands up as a fair-minded, reasonably comprehensive treatment of European history 1450 to the present. We think it fails both those tests. It is neither fair-minded nor reasonably comprehensive.

To show that convincingly requires going into detail, noticing what isn’t there, paying attention to the guiding analytic distinctions, and, yes, considering the words and phrases the authors choose. This is a scholarly endeavor, not something that can be done in short essay. Hey, conservatives, we are working on it.

I appreciate Hess and Addison’s desire for peace and amity, but I’d say it is a little too soon for NAS and the College Board to shake hands on this. Western civilization in both its American and European versions has become the object of ideological scorn among many contemporary academics who are powerfully drawn to cultural Marxism, identity politics, and history as the unfolding of progressive ideals. The College Board’s current version of APEH is grounded in those aversions. “Healthy debate” requires, first, that someone notice the systemic biases, and “good history” requires a picture not bounded by those biases.

The American Enterprise Institute has nothing to gain in comforting the College Board’s cheerful embrace of leftist orthodoxies. I’ll take Hess and Addison’s NRO essay not as a counsel of complacence but as a goad to NAS to do our work faster.