What’s American About American History?

On June 2 a group of 55 scholars released an Open Letter criticizing the College Board’s newly revised “Course and Exam Description, Including the Curriculum Framework” for Advanced Placement in United States History.

On June 3 Daniel Henninger began his Wall Street Journalcolumn by asking, “Would a second Clinton presidency continue and expand Barack Obama’s revision of the American system of government that existed from 1789 until 2009?”

The gravamen of the scholarly critics’ gripe is that courses scrupulously designed according to the new standards of Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) would do little or nothing to equip students to grapple coherently with Henninger’s question, or others like it.  They regard the new standard, in short, as too political — not in the sense of attempting to inculcate the wrong answers but rather in avoiding too many important questions.

“The new framework,” they write, “is organized around such abstractions 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, notably the Constitution.”

The cause and effect of such an approach is that orthodox (which is to say, most) American historians today worship at the altar of the Holy Trinity of Race, Class, and Gender. The “new framework,” as a result, “is so populated with examples of American history as the conflict between social groups, and so inattentive to the sources of national unity and cohesion, that it is hard to see how students will gain any coherent idea of what those sources might be.”

Part of the problem here is the absence of a consensus on purpose, on who should know what, a problem that is more severe in history than in, say, calculus or biology where interpretation is less important. The new framework largely avoids this question by downplaying substantive knowledge and emphasizing “historical thinking skills” — “the ability to describe, analyze, evaluate, and construct models that historians use.”

Indeed, “historical thinking skills” occurs 57 times in the new framework document. The purpose of the AP U.S. History course, it states, is “to apprentice students to the practice of history by explicitly stressing the development of historical thinking skills while learning about the past.”

It is not at all clear, however, that training apprentice historians should be the goal of even college history courses, much less even advanced high school courses.

“Thinking like a historian” is, of course, important … for historians, but it is much less important in the intellectual arsenal of an informed citizen.

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