The past year’s very public battle over the College Board’s new Advanced Placement U.S. History framework—the suggested concepts and skills students need to know for a college-level history course—has, as they say, generated more heat than light. Yet beneath the overheated rhetoric, including wild accusations of anti-American indoctrination, there was a legitimate debate to be had.
On the one hand, the board was entirely correct that the vague, decades-old framework that preceded the 2014 version urgently needed to be replaced. The 2014 framework was also meant to accompany a heavily reconceptualized AP exam, commendably focused on historical comprehension rather than rote memorization. The new instructor’s guide and framework aimed to clarify the key concepts that would appear on the exam, freeing teachers from a draining “better memorize everything in the textbook” approach. Too many critics failed to consider what the framework actually was and what it was for, and attacked it for failing to list famous names and events, as if it were a detailed and prescriptive curriculum.
On the other hand, the 2014 framework’s content summary was properly criticized for a tendentious and overly judgmental approach to history. While much coverage of the subject was perfectly sound, too much seemed to urge condemnation of the past for failure to live up to present-day moral standards.
To its considerable credit, the College Board took substantive critiques very seriously. The board would normally release small further revisions, based on teacher input, after the new document’s first year in use. But in the summer of 2014, it announced an unprecedented open-comment period: Instead of issuing a minor 2015 revision based solely on AP teacher feedback, the board would undertake a major redrafting based on input from all interested parties. The much-revised 2015 version, released in late July, is the result of this serious attention to criticism, and the board’s commendable desire to produce the best and most useful framework possible.
I am on record, in print and online, as a critic of the 2014 framework’s biased tone. Last year, I participated in a meeting with College Board representatives at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington (at which the open-comment period was first proposed). Afterwards, I was asked to submit a detailed critique. My concerns were substantially addressed in the first wave of revisions, and I was brought in as a formal consultant during the final revision process this past spring.
Inevitably, I still have quibbles with content items here and there—points I think could be clearer, broader, or better-focused. But my major concerns with the 2014 version have been thoroughly addressed in the 2015 revision.
The first version drew fire mainly from the right, drawing accusations of anti-American bias—and the 2014 version’s presentism did too often give such an impression. Now, inevitably, some on the left have accused the College Board of caving to political pressure and returning to archaic flag-waving “triumphalism.” Before the new version was even released, Newsweek, responding to a document its staff had not yet even seen, sought to set the narrative, declaring that the revision “emphasizes American exceptionalism.” (The term “American exceptionalism,” which did not appear in the 2014 version, now does in the revision—once, last on a list of general concepts relating to American national identity.)
In reality, the revisions were never meant to swap the old version’s troubling presentism and excessively hostile tone for a triumphalist, no-warts celebration of American glories. The clear purpose was to strive for balanced and neutral coverage, not to replace one bias with another. The complexities and often-dark realities of the past are in no way concealed or glossed over in the revision: They are simply presented less judgmentally, in better context, with more attention to the varied perspectives of all historical actors. The result deserves support from scholars and educators across the ideological spectrum.
The clear purpose was to strive for balanced and neutral coverage, not to replace one bias with another.
Some broad snapshots of key changes, in light of my own past published concerns:
The 2015 framework no longer seems to single out the British North American colonies as uniquely immoral. While in no way concealing negative realities, it contextualizes slavery and conflict with Native Americans more broadly. The rise of comparatively egalitarian societies and representative political institutions in the colonies—key background to the American Revolution and America’s historically crucial political innovations—are now given due weight. The reasons for American objections to British taxation in the 1760s and 1770s are now discussed, clearly contradicting the misconception that the revolutionaries considered all taxation inherently evil.
The Jacksonian rise of almost unprecedented (for the time) universal white-male suffrage now appears explicitly. The benefits and costs of industrialization and urbanization are notably balanced, without downplaying the very real burdens of urban poverty and labor exploitation. The views and aims of settlers going west are properly discussed, in addition to the dire consequences such settlement had for increasingly besieged native peoples. Sharecropping’s ensnarement of poor white labor is noted, alongside its well-known impact on African-Americans.
The blind spots of some Progressive-era activists toward minorities and immigrants are now given appropriate and contextualized coverage. The use of the atomic bomb on Japan is discussed without imposed value judgment. Coverage of the Reagan movement and New Conservatism is likewise notably more neutral.
None of these changes amounts to “triumphalism.” Slavery, war, poverty, and minorities’ struggles for rights and recognition are in no way downplayed. They are simply contextualized, and presented without a biased tone of presentistic judgment.
The question going forward is whether critics on all sides will approach the revised 2015 framework with an open mind—or whether they will cling to preconceived attacks in which they have already ideologically invested. Will the right still assume the document forms part of a dark conspiracy against American patriotism? Will the left treat the mere fact of revision as a shameful cave-in to right-wing pressure, insisting—contrary to the facts—that “American exceptionalism” is suddenly the framework’s dominant thrust?
The College Board has made an admirable effort to thread the needle: responding to legitimate criticism while avoiding excessive overcompensation. The 2015 revision offers much to satisfy those who approach the past without a present agenda. Educators should seek neither to attack the past nor to glorify or sanitize it. They should seek to explain historical content in as balanced, neutral, and contextual a manner as possible. The College Board, to its lasting credit, has made dramatic strides toward that ideal in its revised framework.
A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2015 edition of Education Week as On the AP U.S. History Framework Approaching the Past Without a Present Agenda