Social Studies

Critic Claims AP European History Course Downplays Freedom, Faith

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — July 01, 2016 4 min read
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Has the United Kingdom been “Brexited” from Advanced Placement European History?

A group that raised concerns about bias in the College Board’s Advanced Placement United States History course last year is now flagging the European History course for downplaying the distinctiveness of various European nations, especially Great Britain, and for minimizing the role of faith and liberty in the history of the continent.

David Randall, the director of communications for the National Association of Scholars, published “The Disappearing Continent,” an essay criticizing the AP European History course and examination, earlier this month. The NAS was one of a number of people and groups that pushed for changes to the Advanced Placement framework for U.S. History, claiming it presented a slanted and often negative view of United States development. The College Board substantially changed parts of that framework in 2015 in response to those criticisms.

The College Board defends the AP Euro course as well-regarded among educators, students, and historians, and said that its framework was developed through a rigorous process involving numerous historians.

In his essay, Randall writes:

APEH turns Europe's history into a foreshortened, neo-Marxist, generic narrative of historical modernization, powered by abstract social and economic forces. It defines modernization around secularism, the state, and a thin supportive intellectual history. It mentions neither Christopher Columbus nor Winston Churchill. APEH points the arrow of European history toward a well-governed, secular welfare state, whose interchangeable subjects possess neither national particularity nor faith nor freedom."

Randall said he’s especially concerned because the Advanced Placement courses are becoming more popular, and, since they can be used to stand-in for college courses, AP Euro may be the only European history course that many young people take.

In the essay, he writes that both history courses demonstrate “the College Board’s long march to impose leftist history on the half a million American high school students each year who prepare themselves for college by taking APUSH or APEH.” He also argued for the creation of rival testing companies.

Randall, who joined the NAS in 2015, said in an interview that he decided to review the AP Euro examination because it seemed like a “useful complement” to the organization’s critique of APUSH.

In a statement, the College Board responded to the NAS:

Development of the AP European History curriculum framework was a rigorous five-year process to ensure quality, objectivity, and alignment to requirements for college credit. Participants in this process included more than 190 AP European History teachers and more than 70 professors from colleges and universities worldwide. Since its release in 2013, the course has received consistently positive feedback from AP teachers, students, historians, and the higher education community. The AP Program welcomes any additional feedback on AP European History and will take it into consideration.

U.S. History Critic Takes a Different View on Euro

One of the earliest critics of the United States history framework, retired teacher and author Larry Krieger, believes that while the original U.S. framework was a “flawed document,” the AP Euro examination doesn’t share the same issues. “I believe that the CB AP EURO Framework is a fair and historically accurate document that achieves its purpose of providing teachers with clear historical objectives and a set of important historical thinking skills,” Krieger wrote in an email to Education Week.

Krieger said in an interview that he is concerned that Randall’s criticism is focused on calling for alternatives to the AP course, rather than a revision to the framework. “In my view, it’s better to improve the College Board frameworks,” he said. "[Randall’s] goal is not to enrich the College Board framework, it’s to supplant it.” Krieger said he thought creating an entirely new course to be used in high schools and approved by universities seemed unpragmatic.

He said while his critique of the U.S. History exam had singled out particular language, such as the definition of “manifest destiny,” the NAS’s criticism of the Euro course is broader. Randall writes, for instance, that the framework pushes neo-Marxism. From Krieger’s point of view, the AP Euro framework and examination language don’t demonstrate that bias, and give teachers the leeway to teach about historical figures such as Churchill at their discretion.

“I’m not unsympathetic and we were strong allies on the APUSH,” Krieger said. “I’m simply saying, guys, I don’t see the inflammatory language.”

He said the College Board had proven amenable to change: “In point of fact, they rewrote the APUSH.”

Pushing a Narrative?

Dena Goodman, a professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, said that she was concerned by the fact that Randall implies that the purpose of a history course is to promote a certain narrative. She said that any survey course has to make choices about subject matter, and while she might not have arrived at precisely the same framework as the College Board, their framework is, to her mind, responsible and reasonable.

“The College Board is trying to teach, not indoctrinate,” she said in an interview. She said students should be learning to discuss, interpret, and reflect on the past in their history classes. Goodman had received an email from Randall in which he solicited her support for his criticism.

“I am concerned that the NAS is trying to enlist history professors with no connection to the College Board such as myself to thwart the good faith efforts of the College Board to design this course,” she wrote in an email.

Randall said that the National Association of Scholars describes itself as an organization of scholars and their supporters who aim to “restore the principles of academic freedom, disinterested inquiry, and unpoliticized curricula against rather serious assaults upon it.” Randall said that while the group is frequently described as conservative, “our members include people from a wide variety of political backgrounds.” The NAS supports positions usually associated with conservatives, such as removing racial preferences in college admissions.

The NAS also published a second critique of the European History framework by James D. Tracy, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. Tracy writes that the framework presents past history as an explanation for modern social issues that need to be solved.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.