The New History Standards—a Reaction Is Coming

Lynne Cheney had a high-profile piece in the April 1 Wall Street Journal critiquing the draft exam associated with the new Advanced Placement U.S. history standards (APUSH). (I’ve written on these standards previously.) The standards have aroused considerable controversy in the scholarly community—the National Association of Scholars deserves the most credit for highlighting the issue.

Cheney’s piece is worth reading in full. She makes two basic criticisms of APUSH. The first is broader and pedagogical. She notes a tendency to de-nationalize the history of the United States, not merely by placing U.S. history into a global context (something laudable) but by downplaying or eliminating from the history standards items that don’t fit either a global approach or the ideological preferences of the current academic majority.

She observes that World War II is framed not through a military history of the conflict, but instead episodes raising “’questions about American values,’ such as ‘the internment of Japanese Americans, challenges to civil liberties, debates over race and segregation, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb.’” These developments should not come as a surprise—the intent of APUSH, as its backers admitted, was to refashion AP U.S. history away from the approaches preferred by state education boards and toward the race/class/gender preferences of the contemporary academy.

Cheney also makes a more specific content-based criticism. She opens by challenging the APUSH standards’ treatment of Ronald Reagan, which she fears will not encourage students “to learn about positive aspects of our past rather than be directed to focus on the negative, as happens all too often.” Reagan’s 1987 Berlin Wall speech, for instance, is framed as demonstrating “increased assertiveness and bellicosity” in U.S. foreign relations. “No notice,” she writes, “is taken of the connection the president made between freedom and human flourishing, no attention to the fact that within 2½ years of the speech, people were chipping off pieces of the Berlin Wall as souvenirs. Instead of acknowledging important ideas and historical context, test makers have reduced President Reagan’s most eloquent moment to warmongering.”

Cheney’s comments about Reagan reflect a concern about the standards among many conservatives. The most notorious example of this pattern, predating APUSH, came from the Texas Board of Education, which wanted more textbook coverage of New Gingrich and the religious principles that theoretically guided the Framers’ actions. Lawmakers in Oklahoma’s Republican-dominated state legislature have called for banning the new standards. A similar measure has been introduced in Georgia, criticizing the APUSH standards for reflecting “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”

I’m not sympathetic to these state initiatives, which improperly merge the pedagogical and ideological lines of criticism of measures such as APUSH. While it’s true that the historical profession is quite left-leaning, the movement to narrow the kind of history to which students are exposed flows as much from pedagogical as ideological motives. The last 20 years or so have featured a determined effort to marginalize or redefine approaches to U.S. history deemed excessively “traditional.” U.S. military history has been all but eliminated from most college curricula, and virtually no university history departments any longer hire specialists in the field. U.S. constitutional history has suffered a similar fate. U.S. diplomatic history has transformed to stress more international or even transnational themes, with less attention played to the making of policy by the U.S. government. And there’s been an aggressive attempt to “re-vision” U.S. political history to stress themes of race, class, and gender at the expense of more traditional topics.

While it’s true that classes in U.S. military or political or diplomatic history are more likely to include positive themes about the American experience than (say) a class in African-American history, ensuring that students learn about the foundational events and principles in American history does not equate to a “celebratory” approach to the past. At Brooklyn College, I teach a mixture of domestic and foreign policy classes; one of the foreign- policy classes focuses on U.S. relations with one region of the world. The offering now is U.S.-Middle Eastern Relations, but I used to offer a course in Inter-American Relations. It’s rather difficult to frame the Mexican War, or the U.S. occupation of Haiti, or U.S. interference in 1920s or 1980s Nicaraguan politics, in a way that makes U.S. conduct look good. But the purpose of the course was to give students an accurate background in the topic, not to provide a positive (or negative) portrayal of the American past.

Similarly, any comprehensive course in U.S. constitutional history will extensively include cases and movements that reflect negatively on the American past—ranging from the anti-canon of Dred Scott, Plessy, and Korematsu to other dubious cases such as Bradwell v. State of Illinois or Minersville School District v. Gobitis or Bowers v. Hardwick. And, of course, while addressing the many positive, far-reaching effects of the Constitutional Convention, the class likewise would need to discuss the 3/5th clause and the Framers’ willingness to morally compromise on slavery.

It’s entirely possible, in short, that a fair-minded class in U.S. constitutional or diplomatic history (or even, depending on the precise course theme, political history) would include enough negative material to arouse the ire of the type of southern and southwestern state legislators who have attacked the APUSH standards. But the academy would be in a far better position to resist these claims that APUSH is seeking to impose a political or ideological agenda if, in fact, the college history education APUSH seeks to replicate at the high school level actually included a wide range of pedagogical approaches. APUSH defenders could then credibly say that they want to expose AP U.S. history students to a wide range of approaches to the American past.

But that isn’t the case, and it isn’t likely to be the case anytime soon. Indeed, the reverse is more likely—ten years out, we’re likely to see a more restrictive range of approaches to U.S. history at the college level, and as a result a more one-sided portrayal of the American past in the AP exam. At some point, a Red State legislature will step in, on political grounds, and impose its own vision of the past on the AP exam and (perhaps) on state university programs as well. And it will be hard to maintain that the academic majority won’t deserve the rebuke.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

3 thoughts on “The New History Standards—a Reaction Is Coming

  1. KC, I am involved in advocating for the Georgia Resolution. I agree there are ways to perfect the bill, but your ideas are not really that far away from what we are already doing, and you’re misrepresenting the totality of the testimony and advocacy we are doing.

    You’re neglecting the political realities on the ground — we are virtually all volunteers; we are all working on several time-consuming issues at the same time; we are also open to constructive advice and help.

    I don’t think public criticism such as this article is acceptable unless you are willing to sit down with the drafters and offer to help to improve the text of the legislation.

    Most of the academicians among us do not have tenured positions, and it is job-threatening for these educators, especially the high school teachers, to take a stand against the educational establishment. You and others with the protection of tenure would be welcome allies.

  2. “the purpose of the course was to give students an accurate background in the topic, not to provide a positive (or negative) portrayal of the American past”

    It is my understanding that according to postmodern deconstructionist theory, there’s no such thing as an “accurate background” (especially in history): the concept of ‘accurate’ being of ‘social construction’, and as such value-laden by its proponents. So there can be only positive or negative portrayal of the American past, and a teacher of history has to make a conscious, political decision about which way s/he wants to present the subject to the pupils.

    As long as this theory holds sway over the majority of social science subject teachers (and academia), any references to “accurate background” will be dismissed out of hand as referring to a theoretically invalid, false construct.

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