Right-wing culture warriors attack new AP US History plan

Students in Jefferson County, CO, protest attempts to gut AP US history course Photograph: RICK WILKING/REUTERS

JISHOU, HUNAN — America’s culture warriors have found a new battlefield: the new College Board Advanced Placement US History framework.

Most of us would just yawn, and say, so the College Board revised the course, what’s the big deal? But to those people who fear any change is a threat to Life As We Know It, the new framework to AP US is a liberal, anti-American plot to indoctrinate high school students in liberal, anti-American ideas.

Conservatives are so alarmed that they persuaded the Republican National Committee (RNC) to issue a resolution opposing the changes, and have also succeeded in getting Republican-controlled state assemblies to do the same thing. The wording is nearly the same in each case.

Their reactionary approach to the “new” APUSH alarmed Jefferson County, Colorado, students and teachers so much that they staged a sick out late last month.

National Review columnist Stanley Kurtz spent more than two-thirds of a rather breathless column tracing, a la Glenn Beck, the invidious anti-American influence of one liberal historian on the new AP US curriculum.

The origins of the new AP U.S. History framework are closely tied to a movement of left-leaning historians that aims to “internationalize” the teaching of American history. The goal is to “end American history as we have known it” by substituting a more “transnational” narrative for the traditional account.

This movement’s goals are clearly political, and include the promotion of an American foreign policy that eschews the unilateral use of force. The movement to “internationalize” the U.S. History curriculum also seeks to produce a generation of Americans more amendable to working through the United Nations and various left-leaning “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs) on issues like the environment and nuclear proliferation. A willingness to use foreign law to interpret the U.S. Constitution is likewise encouraged.

The College Board formed a close alliance with this movement to internationalize the teaching of American history just prior to initiating its redesign of the AP U.S. History exam. Key figures in that alliance are now in charge of the AP U.S. History redesign process, including the committee charged with writing the new AP U.S. History exam. The new AP U.S. History Framework clearly shows the imprint of the movement to de-nationalize American history. Before I trace the rise of this movement and its ties to the College Board, let’s have a closer look at its goals.

I’ll come back to Kurtz later, but for now I will note that the committees that reconfigured the AP US framework include 17 other high school and college history instructors besides the Gang of Three whom Kurtz fears so much. Kurtz has obviously never sat on a curriculum committee. It’s nearly impossible for three people — even if one of them is the coordinator — to reach agreement, not to mention 20 people.

In response to this surprise controversy, this month the College Board revised the document outlining the Framework, presumably to address the specific objections raised by the RNC. That’s the document I am going to refer to. The earlier one was apparently much shorter and left much for paranoid minds to find fault with.

I found no evidence that the College Board is imposing a radical interpretation of American history. Most of the details of teaching the course are left to individual teachers; that’s why it’s called a framework and not a syllabus or curriculum.

Had Kurtz and the other conservatives squawking about the new framework actually read it, maybe they’d reach the same result. However, as is usual in these culture war skirmishes, the objectors never bothered with reading the primary source, be it a controversial novel, or an AP planning document.

It’s also pretty clear they don’t understand what an AP course, much less what analytical history, is supposed to do.

Their main complaint, it seems, that the course does not promote “American exceptionalism,” the idea that the USA is somehow a special and very unique nation in the world, immune from criticism. In other words, while Kurtz bewails the “liberal bias” of the College Board framework, what he and others really want is a conservative bias — theirs.

Let’s deal with the portentous RNC proclamation, which I will deal with clause by clause. It begins:

WHEREAS, Almost 500,000 U.S. students take the College Board’s Advanced Placement U. S. History (APUSH) course each year which has traditionally been designed to present a balanced view of American history and to prepare students for college level-history courses;

Most of this is true, but “balanced view” is a loaded term. AP US, as far as I know, has never prescribed a “view,” balanced or otherwise, of American history. AP US emphasizes the process of studying history, not a specific interpretation of it.

WHEREAS, the College Board (a private organization unaccountable to the public) has recently released a new Framework for the APUSH course that reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects;

Well, no. The new Framework divides American history thematically, and invites students to analyze these themes from a variety of perspectives, including ones that traditionalists see as “anti-American.” What positive or negative aspects are left to the teacher and student to emphasize. I’ll address this later, too.

WHEREAS, the Framework includes little or no discussion of the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history, and many other critical topics that have always been part of the APUSH course;

WHEREAS, the Framework excludes discussion of the U. S. military (no battles, commanders, or heroes) and omits many other individuals, groups, and events that greatly shaped our nation’s history (for example, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Tuskegee Airmen, the Holocaust);

That is not the purpose of the Framework. It’s not a prescriptive curriculum or a course syllabus, which local teachers develop. I can’t imagine an AP US history teacher designing a course without referring to the Declaration, the Pilgrims, or Rev. King. Students are supposed to learn about specific events and figures, and certainly their textbooks cover them.

Notably, the RNC document slips in the phrase, “religious influences,” which no doubt refers to conservative historical revisionists’ efforts to characterize the US as a “Christian nation,” that is, a nation intended specifically to be an expression of the Christian religion.

WHEREAS, the Framework presents a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history, including the motivations and actions of 17th-19th-century settlers, American involvement in World War II, and the development of and victory in the Cold War; and WHEREAS, the Framework describes its detailed requirements as “required knowledge” for APUSH students, and the College Board admits that the APUSH examination will not test information outside this “required knowledge”;

Jeez, the document doesn’t do any of that. Did you bother reading it? There are no such “detailed requirements.” See below.

WHEREAS, because the Framework differs radically from almost all state history standards, so that APUSH teachers will have to ignore their state standards to prepare students for the AP examination, the Framework will essentially usurp almost all state history standards for the best and brightest history students; and

“Usurp.” The right wing loves that word. Obama is the “usurper.” Common Core “usurps” state education models. Anyway, sure, AP teachers have to satisfy both their state requirements and the College Board, but the College Board framework is not prescriptive. It leaves the details to the teachers in the field. Additionally, we’re not talking about every high school student in the USA, just the half-million who take AP US History, who (by the way) also prepare themselves for state exams. I mean, I had to.

WHEREAS, the College Board is not making its sample examination available for public review, thus maintaining secrecy about what U. S. students are actually being tested on; now, therefore be it

First of all, the Board has always (until this year) only released full exams on a strict schedule, after they are given. Because of the hoo-roar about APUSH, the Board took the unprecedented move to release a sample exam, to show the soreheads what the exam questions would be like.

I doubt they will read it.

RESOLVED, That the Republican National Committee recommends that the College Board delay the implementation of the new APUSH Framework for at least a year, and that during that time a committee be convened to draft an APUSH Framework that is consistent both with the APUSH course’s traditional mission, with state history standards, and with the desires of U. S. parents and other citizens for their students to learn the true history of their country; and be it further

“The true history” of the USA. Here again, we see how the conservatives just don’t get how the study of history works. There is no one true history of anything. What they mean is “the history WE think is true.”

RESOLVED, That the Republican National Committee requests that state legislatures and the U. S. Congress investigate this matter; and be it further.

Oooh, an investigation. The party of small government and deregulation wants lawmakers to convene committees, call in witnesses, and meddle with a private company’s affairs. How ironic is that?

RESOLVED, that the Republican National Committee request that Congress withhold any federal funding to the College Board (a private non-governmental organization) until the APUSH course and examination have been rewritten in a transparent manner to accurately reflect U. S. history without a political bias and to respect the sovereignty of state standards, and until sample examinations are made available to educators, state and local officials, and the public, as has long been the established practice; and be it finally

The College Board had a $55 million surplus in 2006. It doesn’t get or need federal funding.

RESOLVED, that upon the approval of this resolution the Republican National Committee shall promptly deliver a copy of this resolution to every Republican member of Congress, all Republican candidates for Congress, and to each Republican state and territorial party office.

Well, this resolution makes the new Framework sound like Mao’s Little Red Book and Marxist propaganda all rolled into one. But, as we will see, the Framework is much more boring than that.

Here’s part of the rationale of the Framework:

In order to accomplish this goal, the AP U.S. History course lays out a set of clear learning objectives that are then assessed on the AP Exam. To become proficient in these learning objectives, students will need to master the kinds of thinking skills used by historians in their study of the past and become familiar with contemporary scholarly perspectives on major issues in U.S. history. Students must engage in a deep study of primary and secondary source evidence, analyze a wide array of historical facts and perspectives, and express historical arguments in writing.

The curriculum framework that follows is just that — a framework for conveying the content and skills typically required for college credit and placement. In order for teachers to have flexibility in how they help students develop these skills and understandings, the framework is not a curriculum and thus does not consist of a list of the historical content (names, events, dates,etc.) that teachers will choose for classroom focus. Instead, the framework consists of four components, each described below. The result is a course that prepares students for college credit and placement while relieving the pressure on AP teachers to cover all possible details of U.S. history at a superficial level. [Emphasis mine.]

Those first of those four components are the skills students should acquire: chronological reasoning, comparison and contextualization, citing evidence, and historical interpretation and synthesis. As the Framework says, the purpose is to make students “apprentice historians.”

Next is the thematic approach of the course. There are seven themes:

  • Identity
  • Work, exchange, and technology
  • Peopling
  • Politics and power
  • America in the world
  • Environment and geography
  • Ideas, belief and culture

I’m not going to cover these in detail, but I will cite one example from the Identity theme to refute the RW idea that important events are omitted from the course.

How and why have debates over American national identity (ID) changed over time?

Learning Objectives

Students are able to …

ID-1 Analyze how competing conceptions of national identity were expressed in the development of political institutions and cultural values from the late colonial through the antebellum periods.
ID-2 Assess the impact of Manifest Destiny, territorial expansion, the Civil War, and industrialization on popular beliefs about progress and the national destiny of the United States in the 19th century.
ID-3 Analyze how U.S. involvement in international crises such as the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, and the Cold War influenced public debates about American national identity in the 20th century.

Clearly, in order to address these questions, students and teachers are going to cover specific events and figures in US history. The Framework just doesn’t say which ones. So, where’s the bias?

The third aspect is the Concept Outline, which divides US history into chronological periods and suggests how time should be spent on each. Then it goes into a more detailed list of key concepts and suggested examples. For example, this one is for the period 1754-1800.

Key Concept 3.2: In the late 18th century, new experiments with democratic ideas and republican forms of government, as well as other new religious, economic, and cultural ideas, challenged traditional imperial systems across the Atlantic World.

During the 18th century, new ideas about politics and society led to debates about religion and governance and ultimately inspired experiments with new governmental structures. (ID-1) (POL-5) (WOR-2)

A. Protestant evangelical religious fervor strengthened many British colonists’ understandings of themselves as a chosen people blessed with liberty, while Enlightenment philosophers and ideas inspired
many American political thinkers to emphasize individual talent over hereditary privilege.

Teachers have flexibility to use examples such as the following:
• John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith

B. The colonists’ belief in the superiority of republican self-government based on the natural rights of the people found its clearest American expression in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and in the Declaration of Independence.

See, famous people, events and even the Declaration are specifically mentioned, contrary to the RNC proclamation quoted above.

The fourth component is the arrangement of the AP exam, with sample questions. I’ll spare you those.

Coming back to Kurtz, he tries to connect the AP resign committee to a liberal NYU historian, Thomas Bender, a critic of American exceptionalism.

In opposition to this, Bender wants to subordinate American identity to a cosmopolitan, “transnational” sensibility. Bender urges us to see each nation, our own included, as but “a province among the provinces that make up the world.” Whereas the old U.S. history forged a shared national identity by emphasizing America’s distinctiveness, Bender hopes to encourage cosmopolitanism by “internationalizing” the American story.

Let me point out that Bender has no real involvement with the new AP framework. Kurtz, adopting the paranoid free association of Glenn Beck, tries to connect the dots, though.

Bender was part of a project among 78 historians that produced something called the La Pietra Report in 2000. The purpose of the project was to devise a new US history curriculum with more of an international flair. One-third of the historians were not US citizens, Kurtz says, and one of them was a Cuban! You know, a commie.

Two years later, the Organization of American Historians, which had organized the La Pietra project, participated in a joint advisory board with the College Board. One of the participants was Ted Dickson, who was Co-Chair of the AP U.S. History Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee, which developed the new framework. Connect the dots, number 1.

This advisory board published a book of essays in 2008, America on the World Stage: A Global Approach to U.S. History. One of the essayists, Suzanne Sinke of Florida State University, was also on the APUSH rewrite committee. Connect the dots number 2. Kurtz is dissatisfied with Sinke’s approach to immigration and migration, because it doesn’t match up with traditional interpretations.

Finally, Kurtz connects one more person with the Bender-La Pietra-Joint Advisory Board cabal: Lawrence Charap, the overall supervisor of the APUSH redesign. Charap also wrote an essay in America on the World Stage analyzing how American commercials as a form of propaganda.

After spending nearly all of his column connecting the dots, Kurtz then says he will do a detailed analysis of the framework at a later time, as well as trace other nefarious ideological influences on the AP curriculum.

Like me, Kurtz refers to the lengthier framework document, but his closing paragraph suggests that he hadn’t in fact read it.

It is true, of course, that as on much else, Americans are divided about how best to teach and understand U.S. history. This is precisely why the new, lengthy, and detailed AP U.S. History Framework is such a bad idea. The brief five-page conceptual guideline the Framework replaced allowed sufficient flexibility for teachers to approach U.S. History from a wide variety of perspectives. Liberals, conservatives, and anyone in-between could teach U.S. history their way, and still see their students do well on the AP Test. The College Board’s new and vastly more detailed guidelines can only be interpreted as an attempt to hijack the teaching of U.S. history on behalf of a leftist political and ideological perspective.

Yes, the guidelines are more detailed, as a response to complaints that the APUSH course was supposedly omitting important events and people. But I am hard pressed to find any sort of prescriptive liberal bias of the kind that Kurtz says is there. Rather, the concepts and questions are ones that are very common among historians, and AP students should be expected to grapple with them. There is nothing in the document that demands a liberal or a conservative interpretation by teachers or students. It just proposes questions. It doesn’t answer them.

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