DESPITE CRITICISM, APUSH IS BETTER

The College Board’s new AP U.S. history standards (APUSH) remain in the news. A recent piece by Stanley Kurtz suggests that despite the revisions, the standards remain unsatisfactory and will prevent the instruction of more traditional topics in U.S. history. A piece in EDWeek, on the other hand, has quotes from historians mostly praising the revisions, along with a complaint from a so-called human-rights writer, who suggests that the changes will “foster divisiveness” by failing to sufficiently stress racial tension throughout U.S. history.

A reminder on the nature of the controversy. The 2014 standards generated considerable criticism (including from me) primarily on four grounds, the last three of which I shared:

(1)   The guidelines inappropriately stressed liberal themes at the expense of conservative ones.

(2)   The guidelines sought to impose a race/class/gender pedagogy, to the extent of diminishing the role played by important figures in U.S. history, such as the Founders.

(3)   The guidelines’ addition of a unit preceding the British settlement of North America was faddish.

(4)   The guidelines troublingly conflicted skills with content, suggesting that students could learn a “skill” (such as reading primary documents) regardless of the content of the skill-related item.

I had argued that the second and fourth items were the most significant defects. The fourth brought to mind the dispositions battle, in which NCATE touted a skill “disposition to promote social justice” as a way of denying academic freedom the students. Similarly, the implication was that a student could master the skill through reading Federalist 10—or by reading the diary of an 18th century midwife, suggesting that the two were somehow of equal importance.

But the revised version of the standards, as I previously noted, eliminates many of these problems. The skills/content conflation is gone, and the standards add a section on the importance of the Founders. Language is toned down; one example cited in EdWeek is the cutting of a description of Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric as “bellicose.” I’ve probably used such a description in a lecture in the past—but guidelines should strive to be as neutral as possible in language, and the shift was appropriate. The inclusion of the pre-British settlement section remained, although this material would better be covered in a European history class.

Kurtz, however, suggests that these changes are little more than token. He makes three principal argument. First, he notes that the revised guidelines continue to give insufficient attention to diplomatic and military history. I agree. But, as Kurtz also notes, “The most significant changes to the APUSH framework are the removal of controversial phrases, along with a general paring down of the content.” Paring down the content means that teachers can—and must—look to state educational guidelines, which have a much greater role for traditional topics. I would prefer to see more respect for state guidelines, but that wasn’t likely.

Second, Kurtz cites the experience of an outstanding AP U.S. history teacher, who went to a teacher-training session and got exposed to a lovefest for Howard Zinn. I’ve no doubt that this occurred as described—though I’ve done many of these seminars and have never had such an experience (here’s a link to my latest session, on the Cold War)—but even if APUSH were wholly revised, a Zinn-fest would still be possible.

Third, Kurtz argues that the new guidelines insufficiently stress American exceptionalism. The problem here, however, is that this phrase has become quite ideologically charged. (For that reason, I don’t believe I’ve ever used it in my own right in a class lecture, though of course I’ve noted when figures covered in the class, such as Woodrow Wilson, have operated under such a theory.) There’s also no historiographical consensus on what American exceptionalism is, or whether it’s even accurate to say that it exists. Accordingly, I didn’t expect to see the term play a large role in the revised standards, and am not surprised at the outcome.

Overall, with the exception of the pre-settlement era addition, I continue to think the revised standards are a vast improvement over their predecessor.

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.

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