A Pause in the History Wars

By 08/06/2015

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What’s taught to American children is often controversial nowadays, and our schools will forever be buffeted by the cultural waves that roil our universities. But in that storm, the College Board deserves a cheer for trying to stabilize the vessel known as Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH).

This particular tempest blew up when a new “framework” for high school instructors who teach the subject turned out to be biased in its treatment of the nation’s past.

History has been part of the AP program since the mid-1950s. Among the thirty-eight subjects now spanned by that program, it’s the second-most-popular with high school pupils seeking the possibility of college credit.

The end-of-course APUSH exam was always plenty rigorous, lasting three hours and scored during the summer by veteran instructors assembled by the College Board. The problem was that those actually teaching the course to tens of thousands of kids had no useful guidance to prepare students for it. They could consult a vague “topic outline” and look at old exams, but teachers complained that racing through so vast a subject in a single year, combined with the dearth of primary and secondary sources that surfaced on the tests themselves, led to neglect of the nation’s founding documents. More generally, it necessitated the sacrifice of deep student understanding in favor of scads of near-random facts.

The College Board set out around 2005 to improve matters by revamping the exam and developing an APUSH framework that clarified what content might appear on the test. The framework would require many more questions to focus on analysis of primary sources, and would also emphasize thought-provoking essays over multiple-choice items.

When the redesign first surfaced, teachers generally cheered its delineation of historical periods, outline of specific concepts and learning objectives, enumeration of key themes, and focus on analytic thinking and close reading of key documents.

As others scrutinized the new course framework, however, its acute case of left-wing bias stood out, particularly in such key realms as national identity (missing), the contributions of capitalism (mostly pernicious), the nature of intergroup relations (fraught, to put it mildly), and the overall value of the American experiment. A seventeen-year-old student dutifully learning her country’s history according to this framework would likely end up viewing the United States as a place of conflict and inequality, with minimal understanding of the dreams it has fulfilled, the problems it has striven to solve, the world catastrophes it has averted, and the example it has set. Why, after all, do so many people still yearn to come here?

How had this happened? Recall that the AP mission is to certify high school students who do well on its exams as having learned the equivalent of an introductory college class. To frame those exams and the courses that prep kids for them, the College Board appoints committees of professors from the relevant discipline, as well as some high school teachers (most of whom had studied with such professors).

What went wrong here—and could yet go wrong in other AP subjects as they get updated—is that by the time a committee was formed to update APUSH, the academy had lurched leftward. And in no field did it lurch further than in history. Professors commonly teach intro courses today that focus on race, class, gender, and oppression, and many of them view the country’s past through the lens of what’s now politically correct and academically fashionable. Unsurprisingly, the 2012 APUSH framework channeled that view and incorporated its biases—and likely did so without its authors even noticing. Fish, after all, don’t notice the water they’re swimming in.

College courses, however, are optional. High school is a different matter. At least forty-four states require students to pass a U.S. history course before graduating, and those taking the AP version are unlikely to have taken any other (at least not since middle school). So what’s in the APUSH framework is as much about shaping future citizens as about garnering college credit.

When David Coleman took the helm of the College Board in 2012, the framework was done. He and his team focused elsewhere and were caught by surprise when the outcry over bias arose, initially from non-professors who take seriously what future Americans are taught in school. The backlash led a number of distinguished historians to read the framework closely—and led the Board’s new leaders to do the same.

Pretty much everyone who studied it came to the same conclusion: The framework was biased. Key figures were omitted. Industrialization was mostly evil. Westward expansion was hegemonic. Almost every imaginable group had been oppressed and abused (ditto the environment). Ronald Reagan was “bellicose.” And identity politics had displaced American identity.

The problem was real and the outcry loud and intense. The College Board had little choice but to respond. Led by AP chief Trevor Packer, they encouraged further public comment, convened mostly new committees, and enlisted veteran history teachers and serious scholars to pore over the framework and suggest ways to root out the biases without introducing new ones.

Last week, the revamp was unveiled. To my eye and those of many who reviewed it in advance, the bias appears to be gone. America again has a national identity. The failings and blemishes of our past are still there, as they should be, but they’re no longer the main story. Teenagers competently taught by teachers versed in the revised framework will be a lot closer to readiness for responsible citizenship.

What they may not be ready for is what awaits them in college! Indeed, they might be wise to avoid the history department when they get there. (Maybe it’s just as well that few colleges still require their students to study history while on campus.)

Obviously, the College Board should not have allowed this problem to arise in the first place. It should have better supervised its own process and insisted on a balanced product. But its leaders deserve credit for addressing the problem, and they’ve mostly solved it. How many outfits today—especially those associated with the academy—have the guts to acknowledge error, organize to set matters right, and actually produce an acceptable repair job?

– Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared in the Education Gadfly Weekly

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