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Social Studies

Historians: AP U.S. History Changes Are ‘Evenhanded’

By Liana Loewus — August 18, 2015 5 min read

After many months of high-profile, politicized debate about the new Advanced Placement U.S. History course, which was overhauled for 2014, the College Board listened to its critics and released a sentence-by-sentence revision of the document last month that it says is “clearer and more balanced.”

Even so, the partisan back-and-forth continues. Some conservative commentators who said last year’s iteration had a left-leaning bias are pleased, while others argue the document still doesn’t say enough about “American exceptionalism.” And some liberal commentators are condemning the College Board, which administers the AP program, for caving to Republican pressure.

At least one group, though, is generally convinced the curriculum guidelines have reached a good place: historians.

“The vast majority of readers will say this is very evenhanded, rather neutral, and could even be described as a colorless guide to teaching American history, which is what it should be,” said Jon Butler, a professor emeritus of American studies, history, and religious studies and the current president of the Organization of American Historians.

James R. Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, a defender of the 2014 version, also backed the new one. “The professional historians on the whole think this is fine,” he said. “Teachers [also] seem to be fine with this.”

How the Backlash Began

As the College Board has emphasized, the AP U.S. History framework is not a curriculum, but simply an outline of the concepts and skills students need for a college-level history course. Teachers are expected to fill out lessons with more specific historical content. About 500,000 students per year take AP U.S. History, for which they can earn college credit at some universities if they score high enough.

The framework was revised three years ago, in response to teachers’ complaints that the course required too much memorization and not enough historical thinking. That version went into classrooms in fall 2014. But it wasn’t until last spring, when retired AP U.S. History teacher Larry S. Krieger published several articles saying the guidelines offered an overly negative view of the country’s past, that the firestorm began.

Claims that the framework was left-leaning and “revisionist” began rolling in from a variety of conservative groups and figures, including the Republican National Committee, state policymakers in Georgia and Oklahoma, presidential candidate Ben Carson, the Texas state board of education, and the school board in Jefferson County, Colo.

The authors of the 2014 framework responded with an open letter defending the framework and stressing the need to have “faith in history teachers’ command of their subject matter.”

But some historians have said that the initial document did lean ideologically to the left.

“Some things needed fixing,” said Butler, the OAH president. “Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric was described as ‘bellicose’ as a matter of fact, and of course [the document] shouldn’t have said that.”

Jeremy Stern, a Newton, Mass.-based history education consultant, said that while some of the politically fueled objections were “over the top,” others were “legitimate.”

“What I objected to was the presentism of the document, the urging of teachers and students to condemn the past for not living up to the moral standards of the present, rather than trying to understand it from the perspective of the period,” said Stern, who was hired by the College Board to review the 2015 revision.

For instance, the discussion of western settlement, “mentioned in passing that western settlement occurred, and the entire discussion was on the impact it had on Native Americans,” he said. “All of that’s true and has to be included. The problem was that there was absolutely nothing about the settlers, why were they going west, what were they trying to achieve.” After gathering public feedback, a group of seven historians and history educators revamped the framework—reorganizing the sections and line-editing for content and clarity.

The result is a wholly new document. The theme “identity” now reads “American and national identity,” and its description includes the phrase “American exceptionalism.”

Motives for western settlement, including the desire for natural and mineral resources, have been added.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin are now explicitly mentioned in the key concepts.

The new framework characterizes early interactions between Europeans and Native Americans as “mutual misunderstandings,” rather than stating, as the 2014 version did, that “Spanish and Portuguese explorers poorly understood the native peoples they encountered in the Americas.”

Instead of saying that the British system of enslaving black people was “reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority,” the new document now explains that “other European empires in the Americas” also participated in the slave trade.

It also states that revelations about the Holocaust and “Nazi atrocities"—neither of which were mentioned in the previous framework—reinforced Americans’ view of World War II as a fight for freedom and democracy. And, of course, the new version removes the word “bellicose” in describing Reagan.

Changing Attitudes

For some conservative commentators, the rewrite is an improvement.

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, who had serious reservations about the first framework, wrote with a colleague in the National Review that the new framework is “not just better—it’s flat-out good.”

“It doesn’t only address the most egregious examples of bias and politicization; rather, nearly every line appears to have been rewritten in a more measured, historically responsible manner,” they say. (Hess also writes an opinion blog for Education Week.)

Among the new version’s critics is Stanley Kurtz, a conservative commentator and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He wrote in the National Review that the framework has “little-to-no significant new content” on American exceptionalism.

Others have said the College Board’s revisions went too far right. The Twittersphere is filled with posts bashing the board for “sugarcoating” history and “glossing over” racism and oppression.

Jake Flanagin, who writes about human rights for the digital news outlet Quartz, said that the new framework “tones down language (and even mentions) of racial tension throughout U.S. history,” which he claims “will only foster more divisiveness.”

But historians, on the whole, seem satisfied.

“This shouldn’t be a political document,” said Butler. “It shouldn’t glorify the American Constitution or condemn the American Constitution. We need to teach our controversy, our successes, a real history—and that’s what this prescribes.”

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