Europe: The Disappearance of a Continent

What the College Board did to American history two years ago it has now done to European history: erase and contort. Writing at the National Review Online’s The Corner, Stanley Kurtz makes clear what is at stake: “The curriculum will shape textbooks and the way in which all high school and college students are taught about our Western heritage for years to come.” This report introduces a critique sponsored by the National Association of Scholars of the College Board’s new Advanced Placement European history standards. Two years ago, NAS’s critique of the College Board’s dramatically revised U.S. History Standards touched off a national debate. That debate led the College Board in 2015 to revise those standards again. NAS’s critique also prompted a movement to develop a competing set of standards and tests to provide American schools an alternative to the College Board’s monopoly.

Much of the European past goes missing in the new AP European History Course and Exam Description, as it is officially called.  Columbus is absent, and Churchill is reduced to a single prompt. The College Board tells the story of European history as the triumph of secular progressivism, and shunts to the margins the continent’s centuries-long rise to political freedom and prosperity.

In his 12,200-word essay, The Disappearing Continent, NAS Director of Communications David Randall (Ph.D., History, Rutgers University, 2005; specializing in early modern European history) traces the pattern of exclusions and inclusions in these standards, which are already shaping high school curricula across the country. The Disappearing Continent is the first extended examination of the College Board’s European history initiative. We hope to inspire others to join us in the effort to challenge the new standards—to improve them if possible and to replace them if necessary.

Excerpts from The Disappearing Continent

The College Board’s persisting progressive distortion of history substantiates concerns that the 2015 APUSH(Advanced Placement United States History) revisions do not represent a genuine change of direction, but only a temporary detour in the College Board’s long march to impose leftist history on the half a million American high school students each year who prepare themselves for college by taking APUSH or APEH (Advanced Placement European History).

The traditional history of Europe tells how Europeans, uniquely, articulated the ideals of freedom, put them into practice, and created the modern world. APEH’s leftist skew transforms the history of Europe into a story of a generic modernization process that turned Europe into a secular, well-governed welfare state. This skew disserves American high school students by presenting a badly distorted history of Europe that ignores or minimizes the parts of Europe’s history that contradict its progressive narrative. It reduces, above all, 1. The history of liberty; 2. The history of religion; and 3. The history of Britain.

Culture’s Formative Role Erased Historians have explored the ways religion and culture shaped Europe’s economic development ever since the publication of Max Weber’s classic study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Yet though APEH emphasizes economic history throughout, it focuses exclusively on how economic changes affect religion and culture, and never mentions the critical roles that religion and culture play in shaping economic development.

So far as APEH is concerned, economic causation is a one-way street. APEH never mentions Max Weber’s thesis that Protestant faith nurtured economic modernity. APEH emphasizes economic history throughout, but it never describes how the thrifty and striving Protestant culture in Geneva, Amsterdam, and London helped create the modern economic world. Neither does APEH mention how many entrepreneurs and technological innovators were members of this Protestant culture. APEH obscures the link between the Protestant work ethic and the creation of mass European prosperity

APEH also nearly eliminates Islam, Orthodoxy, and Judaism, because their very existence complicates and compromises APEH’s simple narrative of secular modernization. APEH’s removal of Islam may also be motivated by modern progressives’ reluctance to mention modern Islamist terror, much less to confront its deep roots in Islam’s millennial tradition of jihad. Certainly, Islam’s disappearance is the most dramatic of the three, because the portions of Europe under Islamic rule disappear as well.

APEH scarcely mentions the history of the Ottoman Empire, or of southeastern Europe, except for The Disappearing Continent – a) brief mentions of the Battle of Kosovo the Battle of Vienna (1683) and c) the decaying end of Ottoman rule between the Crimean War and Kemal’s formation of modern Turkey. APEH also overlooks a) the fall of Constantinople (1453).

APEH damages the history of early modern Europe especially badly by excising the ideals of freedom. APEH mentions that “Secular political theories, such as those espoused in Machiavelli’s The Prince, provided a new concept of the state” but not that secular political theories also provided new concepts of freedom from the state. APEH hints that “Admiration for Greek and Roman political institutions supported a revival of civic humanist culture in the Italian city-states and produced secular models for individual and political behavior,”—but it obscures civic humanism’s connection to republicanism and liberty. So too tolerance: APEH directs students to “Trace the changing relationship between states and ecclesiastical authority and the emergence of the principle of religious toleration” but it only cites examples of toleration that were granted reluctantly.

APEH never mentions that Americans should study Europe’s past because it is our history. APEH never acknowledges that we care about Europe because Europeans founded and settled America, because Americans modeled our ideals, our government, and our society on Europe, or because America shares in the Western tradition that stretches from the Battle of Thermopylae to the Battle of Britain.

America’s knowledge of its European legacy is part of our own history— but APEH obscures the reason George Washington’s peers called him Rome’s Cincinnatus reborn, or why Union soldiers sang of their president as Father Abraham at Shiloh, Big Bethel, and Jerusalem Plank Road. APEH relinquishes the most important reason to study Europe’s history—because its heritage is our birthright. APEH sunders America from its European past particularly by minimizing British history. APEH distorts European history in and of itself by its partial erasure of Britain, but it also removes the hinge that connects America to Europe through people, language, literature, law, government, ideals, society, and culture. Our Europe above all is Britain, and APEH amputates our mother country’s story as the necessary means to make Europe’s history a chronicle of a foreign land.

The College Board’s new 2015 AP European History examination (APEH) warps and guts the history of Europe to make it serve today’s progressive agenda. APEH turns Europe’s history into a foreshortened, neo-Marxist, generic narrative of historical modernization, powered by abstract social and economic forces. It defines modernization around secularism, the state, and a thin supportive intellectual history. It mentions neither Christopher Columbus nor Winston Churchill. APEH points the arrow of European history toward a well-governed, secular welfare state, whose interchangeable subjects possess neither national particularity nor faith nor freedom.

The College Board’s progressive distortion of European history powerfully resembles the bias in its 2014 Advanced Placement United States History examination (APUSH). The College Board’s persistent progressive bias substantiates concerns that the 2015 APUSH revisions do not represent a genuine change of direction, but only a temporary detour in the College Board’s long march to impose leftist history on the half a million American high school students each year who prepare themselves for college by taking APUSH or APEH.

The Findings

1) APEH presents the history of government rather than of liberty.

2) APEH presents religion throughout as an instrument of power rather than as an autonomous sphere of European history.

3) APEH treats the movement to abolish slavery without mentioning how it was inspired by religious faith, led by saints such as William Wilberforce, and hymned to Amazing Grace.

4) APEH underplays British history throughout, thus minimizing the importance of Britain’s distinctive history in the European tradition as the champion of liberty.

5) APEH minimizes and extenuates the evils of Communism, the brutal destructiveness of Soviet rule, and the aggressiveness of Soviet foreign policy.

6) APEH virtually ignores Europe’s unique development of the architecture of modern knowledge, which made possible almost every modern form of intellectual inquiry.

7) APEH doesn’t argue that European history is important or interesting in itself. APEH never gives a reason why students should study Europe’s history in particular.

8) APEH never mentions that Americans should study Europe’s past because it is our history.

We make 8 recommendations:

1) The College Board should justify the study of European history as the study of Americans’ history—the origin of our founding settlers, our government, our society, and our ideals.

2) The College Board should justify the study of European history because of its intrinsic interest.

3) The College Board should add an examination on Classical and Medieval European history up to c. 1450.

4) The College Board should restore the importance of contingency, culture, politics, and historical individuals, and reduce the importance of inevitability, society, and economics.

5) The College Board should live up to its ideals and incorporate diverse historiographies.

6) The College Board should place the history of religion (including histories of Orthodoxy, Islam, and Judaism), the history of liberty, and the history of Britain at the heart of APEH.

7) The College Board should also place the emergence of the theory and practice of freemarket economic liberty at the heart of APEH.

8) The College Board should accompany changes to APEH with parallel changes in all APEH materials, including textbooks, instructional materials, and teacher training. Americans should not rely on the College Board, or any one organization, to make these changes. We make one final recommendation:

9) Americans should restore choice and accountability to secondary education in America by developing competitive alternatives to the College Board’s AP testing program.

David Randall

David Randall

David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars.

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