Scholars Push Back against ‘APUSH’ history

A group of 55 historians and other scholars has issued a grave warning about the “dramatically changed” plans for the teaching of American history in our schools. The framework for the Advanced Placement (AP) exam in U.S. History, they say, imposes on students “an arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history… The new framework makes a shift from ‘identity’ to ‘identities,’ heavily emphasizing gender, class, racial and ethnic identities. Indeed, the new framework 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. 

The scholars favor a “warts and all” approach “alert to all the ways we have disagreed and fallen short of our ideals, while emphasizing the ways that we remain one nation with common ideals and a shared story.”

For many American students, the scholars say, the AP test effectively has taken the place of the formerly required U.S. history survey course in colleges and universities, making its structure and contents a matter of even greater importance from the standpoint of civic education. For many college-bound students, Advanced Placement U.S. history is the last history course they will take.

Signatories include Victor Davis Hanson, Lynne Cheney, Bruce Cole, Patrick J. Deneen, Robert George, Leon Kass, Sandra Stotsky, Herb London, John Fonte and Harvey Mansfield.

Writing on Real Clear Politics, Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, agreed with the scholars, noting that the famous historian Gordon Wood wrote recently in The Weekly Standard that the rise of identity politics has all but blotted out traditional scholarship. “College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by non-academics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.”

Berkowitz comments, “The College Board, however, takes its cue from the professors immersed in those incestuous conversations….the College Board’s framework highlights developments that correspond closely to progressive priorities and reflect politically correct dogmas.

The teaching of American history in our schools faces a grave new risk, from an unexpected source. Half a million students each year take the Advanced Placement (AP) exam in U.S. History. The framework for that exam has been dramatically changed, in ways certain to have negative consequences. – Editor

We wish to express our opposition to these modifications. The College Board’s 2014 Advanced Placement Examination shortchanges students by imposing on them an arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history. We favor instead a robust, vivid, and content-rich account of our unfolding national drama, warts and all, a history that is alert to all the ways we have disagreed and fallen short of our ideals, while emphasizing the ways that we remain one nation with common ideals and a shared story.

The Advanced Placement exam has become a fixture in American education since its introduction after the Second World War, and many colleges and universities award credits based on students’ AP scores. In fact, for many American students the AP test effectively has taken the place of the formerly required U.S. history survey course in colleges and universities, making its structure and contents a matter of even greater importance from the standpoint of civic education. Many of these students will never take another American history course. So it matters greatly what they learn in their last formal encounter with the subject.

Educators and the public have been willing to trust the College Board to strike a sensible balance among different approaches to the American past. Rather than issuing detailed guidelines, the College Board has in the past furnished a brief topical outline for teachers, leaving them free to choose what to emphasize. In addition, the previous AP U.S. History course featured a strong insistence on content, i.e., on the students’ acquisition of extensive factual knowledge of American history.

But with the new 2014 framework, the College Board has put forward a lengthy 134-page document which repudiates that earlier approach, centralizes control, deemphasizes content, and promotes a particular interpretation of American history. This interpretation downplays American citizenship and American world leadership in favor of a more global and transnational perspective.

The College Board has long enjoyed an effective monopoly on advanced placement testing. The changes made in the new framework expose the danger in such a monopoly. The result smacks of an “official” account of the American past. Local, state, and federal policymakers may need to explore competitive alternatives to the College Board’s current domination of advanced-placement testing.

The new framework 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. Elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict. The new framework scrubs away all traces of what used to be the chief glory of historical writing—vivid and compelling narrative—and reduces history to an bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces.

Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals. The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that self-consciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective.


 

There are notable political or ideological biases inherent in the 2014 framework, and certain structural innovations that will inevitably result in imbalance in the test, and bias in the course. Chief among these is the treatment of American national identity. The 2010 framework treated national identity, including “views of the American national character and ideas about American exceptionalism” as a central theme.

But the 2014 framework makes a dramatic shift away from that emphasis, choosing instead to grant far more extensive attention to “how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic identities.” The new framework makes a shift from “identity” to “identities.” Indeed, the new framework 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. This does them, and us, an immense disservice.

We believe that the study of history should expose our young students to vigorous debates about the nature of American exceptionalism, American identity, and America’s role in the world. Such debates are the warp and woof of historical understanding. We do not seek to reduce the education of our young to the inculcation of fairy tales, or of a simple, whitewashed, heroic, even hagiographical nationalist narrative. Instead, we support a course that fosters informed and reflective civic awareness, while providing a vivid sense of the grandeur and drama of its subject.

A formal education in American history serves young people best by equipping them for a life of deep and consequential membership in their own society. The College Board’s 2014 framework sadly neglects this essential civic purpose of education in history. We can, and must, do better.

Scholars Concerned About Advanced Placement History

Signatories:

John Agresto, former President, St. John’s College-Santa Fe, and former Deputy Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Patrick N. Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History, Emory University

Stephen H. Balch, Director of The Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, Texas Tech University, and Founder, National Association of Scholars

Herman J. Belz, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Maryland

Gerard V. Bradley, Professor of Law, University of Notre Dame

James W. Ceaser, Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics, University of Virginia 

James Jay Carafano, Military Historian, and Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, E. W. Richardson Fellow, and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, Heritage Foundation

John “Chuck” Chalberg, Professor of History, Normandale College

Lynne Cheney, Former Chair, National Endowment for the Humanities

Bruce Cole, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History, Indiana University, former Chairman of National Endowment for the Humanities, and Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center

Patrick J. Deneen, David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies and Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Notre Dame

Robert Faulkner, Research Professor of Political Science, Boston College

John Fonte, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for American Common Culture, Hudson Institute

Richard Fonte, Former Director, We the People Project, National Endowment for the Humanities, Former President, Austin Community College

Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University, and Herbert W. Vaughan Senior Fellow, Witherspoon Institute

Charles Glenn, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Boston University, and Co-Chair, International Conference on School Choice and Reform 2015

Susan Hanssen, Associate Professor of History, University of Dallas

Victor Davis Hanson, Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow, Classics and Military History, The Hoover Institution, Stanford University

John Earl Haynes, 20th Century Political Historian, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Michael Holt, Langbourne M. Williams Professor Emeritus of American History, University of Virginia

Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History, Baylor University

Robert Davis Johnson, Professor of History, Brooklyn College, The City University of New York

Amy A. Kass, Sr. Lecturer Emerita, University of Chicago

Leon R. Kass, Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus, Committee on Social Thought, The University of Chicago, and Madden-Jewett Scholar, American Enterprise Institute

Charles Kesler, Dengler-Dykema Distinguished Professor of Government, Claremont McKenna College

Ralph Ketcham, Professor Emeritus of History, Public Affairs, and Political Science, Syracuse University, and Senior Research Associate, Campbell Public Affairs Institute

Joseph Kett, James Madison Professor Emeritus of History, University of Virginia

Harvey Klehr, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History, Emory University

Yuval Levin, Editor, National Affairs, and Hertog Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center

Gordon Lloyd, Robert and Katheryn Dockson Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University

Herb London, Professor Emeritus and former John M. Olin Professor of Humanities, New York University, and former President, Hudson Institute

Myron Magnet, Manhattan Institute, and Author of The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817 

editor

One thought on “Scholars Push Back against ‘APUSH’ history”

  1. Knowing the right history is the main thing to build the character of a nation. It will give great influence to the life of a nation in the future.
    How to present the history that is able to build a national character is thing that has always been a debate in any country, including the United States.
    Studying the history is not just knowing the facts, but also to understand the facts. The crucial here is how to learn the history rightly. Anyone must get a history lesson perfectly thus build a great national character.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *