Friday, August 21, 2015

Why Neither the Right or the Left Will Be Happy With the New AP United States History Exam

I have not spent a lot of time following the debate over the recent changes to the AP United States history course.  Too busy with other things.  I am just starting to catch up.

In 2014 controversy raged when the College Board came out with a new "curriculum framework" for the course. Conservatives thought the framework was too driven by leftist ideology.  It neglected the founding fathers, American exceptionalism, and patriotism.

Liberal historians (who make up most of the historical profession) defended the new framework by educating the public about historical thinking skills and revisionism. You can get up to speed here and here.

The College Board listened to the criticisms and published a new curriculum framework in 2015. Some historians thought that the College Board caved into conservative criticism. Jeremy Stern, who was involved in the rewriting, is not so sure.  His recent piece defending the new curriculum guidelines strikes me as a reasonable middle ground.  Here is a taste:

The AP US History framework (APUSH) that took effect in 2014 aroused a firestorm of controversy and criticism, chiefly from the right – quickly mounting to accusations of conspiracies to impose an unpatriotic, anti-American mindset in students; denunciations by state legislatures and the Republican National Committee; even Ben Carson’s declaration that the APUSH course would leave students ready to join ISIS.
Many such critics failed to grasp the actual purpose of the document: it is not a comprehensive curriculum for APUSH classrooms (let alone an imposed mandate for all high school students), but rather a guide to the content that would appear on the redesigned APUSH exam.1 Thus, accusations that X figure or Y event had been “erased” are nonsensical: AP teachers choose their own substantive details to illustrate the framework’s broader concepts.
Nonetheless, there were legitimate concerns. While the concept and many parts of the content were sound, the framework too often took a tendentious and judgmental approach to history, appearing to urge condemnation of the past for its failure to live up to present-day moral standards. Such an approach – ignoring historical context in favor of current ideological and political priorities – is presentism, not history.2
Most organizations respond to criticism by circling the wagons and preparing for battle. Instead, to its lasting credit, the College Board took substantive criticism seriously, both from analysts with an explicitly conservative outlook (such as Chester Finn and Rick Hess) and historians such as myself. Teacher feedback would normally lead to minor revisions, but the Board instead announced an open comment period, soliciting input from all interested parties.3 The result was an extensively revised 2015 version, which has commendably sought to strike an ideologically balanced middle ground, presenting the realities of the past – good, bad and ugly – in historical context and without presentistic judgment.
The 2014 version, for example, repeatedly singled out the British North American colonies as uniquely intolerant, violent and oppressive (unfavorably comparing them with the frequently brutal Spanish empire). In the 2015 version, slavery and violence against Native Americans are not “whitewashed,” but are put into wider historical context. The Atlantic slave trade, discussed in 2014 almost uniquely in terms of British North America, in fact predated those colonies by a century, and the vast majority of slaves actually went to the Caribbean and Brazil; also, powerful African states captured and sold virtually all the slaves bought by European traders on the African coast – all points the revision correctly notes, while still emphasizing the colonies’ extensive reliance on slavery. The complexities of inter-Indian warfare and native-colonial alliances are also acknowledged, without downplaying the tragic costs of European colonization for native peoples.
The historically crucial rise of relatively egalitarian societies and representative political institutions in the colonies – all but ignored in the 2014 version – is now given due weight. What was egalitarian by 17th century standards is of course absurdly limited to modern eyes, denying even basic rights to women and non-whites – but one must understand why and how such societies and institutions were exceptional for their time to understand the foundation on which later expansions of freedom were laboriously built. Likewise, the Jacksonian rise of near-universal white male suffrage, an extraordinarily radical concept in its day (barely mentioned in the 2014 version) is now properly described in the revision.
The benefits and costs of industrialization and urbanization are now notably balanced – without downplaying the terrible realities of urban poverty and labor exploitation. In the 2014 version, western settlement was discussed almost entirely in terms of its dire impact on increasingly besieged native peoples, with no attention given to the settlers’ aims and worldview (a crucial part of the story, whatever we think today of their actions in pursuit of those aims); now, Indians’ plight and resistance receive just as much weight as before – but the settler viewpoint is explained as well.
The 2014 framework seemed to invite students to condemn the use of the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945; now it is presented as a disputed point. Coverage of the Reagan era – always difficult ground, given its contested place in today’s political battles – came across as dismissive in the 2014 version; now it notably avoids taking sides, presenting both the roots and goals of the New Conservatism as well as its critics’ views.
Other changes simply improved substance and clarity. The key role of Washington and the first Congress in making the constitutional system work is now noted. The reasons for colonial objections to parliamentary taxation are now discussed, making better sense of Revolutionary grievances.4 The blind-spots of some Progressive-era activists towards minorities and immigrants are now given appropriate and contextual coverage (thus expanding discussion of racial segregation and the prevalence of violent racial prejudice).
None of these changes even remotely amount to “triumphalism.” Slavery, war, poverty and minorities’ long struggles for rights and recognition are not downplayed or whitewashed – they are simply presented in context, without a biased tone of presentistic judgment. The aim, indeed, was never to swing from left to right, to replace one bias with another. Conservative critics were an important source of input – but so were historians and educators, myself among them, who were not on the right. I would have fiercely opposed any simple move to the right: I am just as critical of right-wing bias as of left-wing bias… as my review of Texas’s grossly ideological 2010 social studies standards should make clear. The aim, as much as possible, was to achieve a balanced document, describing past events in historical context on their own terms, not through the eyes of present day moral judgment.