Academics Weigh in on AP US History Controversy

Over 55 historians recently signed a letter expressing their dissent to the new Framework established by the College Board for AP US History courses all across the country.  Over 460,000 students took the AP US History exam in 2014.  Each summer, hundreds of AP US History teachers and college professors meet together to grade these exams.  I did this myself for five years in the late 1990s and sporadically until 2007.  There is nothing quite like grading essay exams for eight hours per day for eight straight days.  We did it for the comradery of seeing friends from around the country and the minimal pay that the College Board provided.  I have no complaints in terms of the grading experience, however, and that is why I did it so many times.  I do remember my concern about the ideological slant of some of the exam questions and, in particular, of some of those I was grading with during those summers.  I cringed at times when I heard individuals expressing their distaste for a conservative slant or argument expressed by a student and how it was wrong.  Sometimes it was, but other times it was simply not politically correct.  All in all, however, I have to say the experience was pretty good and I had the sense that the College Board was doing what it could to encourage consistency in the grading process.  In addition, I was particularly pleased with the focus on historical documents (each exam had a DBQ, or document based question, that provided students an opportunity to examine an historical question by analyzing a set of documents).  Too often students could do little more than regurgitate what they found in the documents, but I consoled myself that at least they were being exposed to them.  In addition, I met a number of wonderful AP US History teachers at these grading marathons to add to the one or two I knew from home.  They invigorated my faith in the system and I chalked up the interpretive slant I sensed to the well-known liberal slant of the academic field of history.  Things have changed quite a bit since I stopped grading those exams, it would seem, but I am glad to see academics stepping out and expressing their concerns.

A quick search of the internet reveals  that the changes in the AP Framework have resulted in significant debates in Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, Colorado, North Carolina and Tennessee.  The debate even prompted the Republican National Committee to publish a resolution expressing concern that “the Framework includes little or no discussion of the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history, and many other critical topics…” and “presents a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history….”  This debate is somewhat reminiscent of the debates precipitated by the Smithsonian’s presentation of the Enola Gay in 1994 and again in 2003 when historians and the society at large expressed concern about overly biased presentations.  Interestingly, the Smithsonian was criticized by conservative critics for one presentation and liberal critics for the next.  It does not seem to be asking too much for accuracy, however, which was certainly an issue in those cases.  There is no question that such a concern lingers with the AP US History controversy today.

Larry Krieger, a retired AP US History teacher, and Jane Robbins, of the American Principles Project, did a thorough analysis of the new AP Framework.  They noted that what once was a five-page document has become a 98 page booklet.  The Framework is much more prescriptive than it once was and they expressed their concerns that it has become too much so.  Also, they were alarmed that important figures are minimized or omitted altogether such as Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Martin Luther King, Jr., although to be fair not many individuals are named in the document at all.  More importantly, Krieger and Robbins note that the interpretation presented by the Framework is clearly negative.   After a response to their article by Trevor Packer, a College Board VP, which attempted to defend the Framework, Krieger responded with even more examples of how the Framework focused excessively on racism, cultural hierarchies, and imperialism while discounting the development of democracy, freedoms, and the abolition movement.  While Packer is right that the College Board gives teachers the right to add what material they want to the class, Krieger responds that in the final analysis, what students are tested over is what matters.  His analysis of the released exams suggests that the Framework will leave its mark on student learning.

The historians who wrote the recent letter echo some of the concerns raised by Krieger and Robbins. They also note the problems associated with grounding the Framework in such abstract concepts as “’identity;’ ‘peopling;’ ‘work, exchange, and technology;’ and ‘human geography’ while downplaying essential subjects such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions….”  They lament the impact that this approach has on the narrative of history, which I suppose can be debated.  What cannot be is their recognition that the 2010 Framework still recognized the importance of concepts like national identity and American exceptionalism and the 2014 Framework has not only omitted them, but tried to scrub them by emphasizing “identities” rather than a national identity and critiquing the concept of American exceptionalism.  While any good history course must include critical analysis—indeed the development of analytical skills in students is an important rationale for history courses in general—an interpretive approach that only supports a negative view of America is not teaching analytical skills.  It is indoctrinating.  The teaching of American exceptionalism is not inculcating patriotism or neglecting America’s mistakes.  American exceptionalism is an historical fact.  Our national uniqueness is a product of a complex array of factors, not the least of which are religious, something the Framework barely mentions.  A recent video from noted Harvard professor Clay Christiansen poignantly notes how academia has forgotten this rather important element in our uniqueness.

The professors who signed on to the recent letter are right to be concerned about this interpretive element of the Framework.  As many as 50% of the students who take the AP US History exam obtain college credit.  For many, that will be the last history course they ever take.  Having a politically skewed perspective of our country will have its impact. Given our current President’s predilection to critique rather than praise our country and to apologize to foreign dignitaries for our nation’s past, it seems the Framework will benefit his party in the long run.  Such considerations should never drive curricular change.  The large number of academics who have signed this letter should change the way the public sees this debate.  The handful of teachers and professors who wrote the Framework and much of the media would like Americans to think this controversy is just the product of political jockeying or ignorant rubes who do not understand what goes on in America’s classrooms.  This letter shows those allegations to be false, and the concern substantial.

Our nation has accomplished much good in the world.  Its emphasis on democracy, freedoms— including religious freedom which is increasingly under attack, and addressing past wrongs such as slavery, racism, sexism, and other ills is a testament to the good in America.  Our country’s willingness to fight again imperialism, fascism, and communism has saved millions from oppression.  Our wealth has prevented millions from experiencing starvation.  Our pursuit of freedom, not only here but also around the world, has allowed millions to flourish.  Our military strength allows the world’s economy to succeed.  Our religious commitment to missions has brought millions to Christ.  In a world of competing ideologies and cultures, where many of them do not allow for dissent, the values that America has always held are more important than ever.  Our students need to understand them, embrace them, and seek to maintain them if this country is going to continue having the positive impact it has had on the world historically.  We should not sacrifice those important American values on the altar of misguided political correctness.  The stakes are too high and the field of History should know better.  My hat’s off to the signatories of this letter.

2 thoughts on “Academics Weigh in on AP US History Controversy”

  1. I am so glad to hear about this letter, Tom. I, too, am troubled by the negative spin being put on the history of our country in our educational system and by our president. Hopefully, home and private education will enable many students to see through these negative bias. I also hope the republican nominee for president gives a more positive message about the history of our country. It is necessary to deal with negative elements in our nation, but how refreshing it would be to have a visionary president who units our country about what is good rather than divide us over what is bad. Ronald Reagan comes to mind. I honestly believe this type of president is electable. He will certainly get my vote.

  2. An excellent digest of the criticisms fairly levelled agaist the proposed revisions of the AP exam in U.S. History. Interestingly, Bill O’Reilly of Fox news recently offered a comparable crtique in his opening “Point of View” monologue. I thought, often, of the criticisms of the new AP exam and the tortured/biased interpretation of America’s past it offers, in listening to faculty members, both black and white, being interviewed in connection to the killings in Charleston, S.C. The choric commentary in ALL of these professorial pontifications: America is a racist nation; racism is deeply imbetted in all of our institutions (institutional racism); and, the nation has done little or nothing to deal with the cancer of racism. Imagine impressionable students, many with limited backgrounds in high school, being exposed to this distorted, left-wing claptrap. Is it any wonder that we see them manning the barricades protesting the nation’s history in dealing with minorities and women. For this reason alone, the critique of the proposed revisions of the AP exam need to be taken seriously and the proposed exam significantly modified.

Comments are closed.