When teachers and scholars began to speak out against its 2014 Advanced Placement U. S. History (APUSH) Framework, the College Board initially dismissed the critics as extremists unworthy of attention. The response changed somewhat when the Texas State Board of Education challenged the curriculum’s leftist tenor.
Texas’s status as a major supplier of lucrative AP students prompted the College Board to move into Phase Two of its defense, hiring high-powered lobbying firms to persuade critics that the Framework didn’t say what it said. Phase Three – agreeing to consider the objections and revise the Framework – didn’t happen until the College Board learned of serious discussions to create competition to its near-monopoly on advanced placement courses.
So now, only a week or so before many APUSH teachers and students head back to school, the College Board released its “updated” Framework. Problem solved? Not quite.
To be sure, the College Board has now excised the most egregious statements in the Framework (for example, the claim that Manifest Destiny was about “racial and cultural superiority” and that the Cold War ended only when Ronald Reagan ceased his “bellicose” behavior and made friends with Gorbachev). It has also toned down the suffocating emphasis on identity-group conflict and the leftist trinity of race, gender, and class as the lens through which all of American history must be viewed.
To address the absence of important individuals, events, and concepts, the College Board has now plugged in a mention of some of the most glaring omissions. American exceptionalism? Check. James Madison? Check. D-Day? Check. Rev. Martin Luther King? Check.
But underlying problems remain. The updated Framework, though certainly less problematic than the original, continues to emphasize global perspectives, cultural blending and conflict, and other themes dear to the hearts of leftist college professors. But the worst problem is not what it contains, but what it doesn’t.
Yes, the concept of American exceptionalism is mentioned, but there’s no explanation of what that means or why it’s important. History professor Larry Schweikart has elucidated the four primary components of American exceptionalism: “1) a Christian, mostly Protestant religious heritage; 2) a heritage of common law; 3) a free market; and 4) private property with titles and deeds.” As Dr. Schweikert notes, “While #3 did not come along arguably until the nation was well-founded, the other three were at work in American colonial history as nowhere else in the world, not even England.”
That is what is meant by American exceptionalism — but an APUSH teacher who sticks to this updated Framework will never transmit that understanding to his or her students. Nor will those students understand the riveting stories of the heroes, entrepreneurs, and yes, villains of American history, because those stories simply aren’t there. All emphasis is on de-personalized forces and movements. Merely mentioning a person or a battle, without fleshing out the significance, is inadequate.
The revised Framework, as APUSH teacher Elizabeth Altham concludes, perpetuates the problem of elevating “forces” over individuals. This emphasis, she says, makes it harder to teach the course in a way that engages students and makes history come alive for them.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the updated Framework was written by people acting under compulsion, who didn’t really believe in what they were forced to include.
So we’re left, still, with an attempt by the College Board to construct its own history curriculum and impose it on the states, to the detriment of state history standards. And since the update was released so late, the new textbooks cannot be revised in time for the new school year (if they ever will be); nor can teachers be given meaningful professional development about the changes.
The obvious motive behind the College Board’s revisions was to tamp down discussion of competition. No doubt some conservatives will accept the new version, unconcerned about the motive as long as the product is better. But APUSH is only one AP course undergoing revision. AP European History, for example, is next up – and that Framework is cut from the same leftist mold as the original APUSH Framework. Will it take another 18-month outcry from the public to force the College Board to backtrack on that as well? And on every other course that may be politicized in the future?
The only solution to this problem is competition. If other companies enter the lucrative advanced-placement market, states and schools will be able to choose the products they prefer. They may choose the College Board’s AP if they like it. But they should have a choice. The saga of APUSH should remove all doubt about that.
Emmett McGroarty is Education Director at American Principles Project. Jane Robbins is a senior fellow at American Principles Project.