Last week, the College Board released a new version of the AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description. This document, last revised in 2014, outlines the content that should constitute an Advanced Placement American History course. Ideally, students taking this course pass the exam at the end of the year that entitles them to college credit for their achievement.
The United States does not have a national curriculum for American History. The Common Core standards, an effort to unify the curriculum taught in American schools, only cover reading and math. The AP guidelines are the closest thing we have to a national standard for how this subject should be approached in high school.
The new standards come a year after strong opposition to the 2014 version. That revision emphasized comprehension, interpretation , and synthesis of history instead of merely recalling the names and dates of important milestones. Critics claimed that it undermined the idea of American exceptionalism, and fostered a view of American history that is too negative and political. Several states moved to ban the course from being taught in their schools.
In academic circles, we call this shift toward analysis, synthesis, and application an increase in academic rigor. As we continue to move into the age of information abundance, it becomes increasingly important for students to evaluate the information they’re getting, make connections among content from diverse sources, assess bias and frame of reference, and draw their own conclusions. They apply this deeper understanding of history in new contexts, ostensibly to keep from repeating it.
Unfortunately, some of those conclusions don’t necessarily paint the United States in a positive light. After looking at the facts, one might conclude, for example, that the Boston Tea Party was actually an act of terrorism. Or, maybe, the strained relations between Europeans and native tribes had more to do with the Europeans dismissing them as savages, taking and destroying their resources, and constantly breaking treaties than with the natives acting unreasonably hostile toward white settlers. It’s quite possible that rounding up Japanese Americans, most of whom were United States citizens, and locking them up in interment camps after confiscating their homes and property was a heinous violation of their civil and human rights. One might conclude that detaining 780 people in the aftermath of 9/11 without charge or trial, and then systematically torturing them over the course of a decade poses a stark contrast to the certain inalienable rights endowed to them by their creator.
Fortunately, the new version of the course re-instills those patriotic American ideals that make our citizens believe that this is the greatest country in the history of the world. Our nation is founded on the ideals of liberty, citizenship, and self-governance. Just don’t get too caught up in that definition of “liberty,” and be careful about that “self-governance” thing if you’re black or female or poor. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson are fearless leaders to be revered, and have more than earned their places on our currency. Let’s set aside Washington’s blundering that would have lost the revolutionary war if the French hadn’t conveniently saved the day, Franklin’s inability to keep his hands to himself, and Jefferson’s substantial bi-racial posterity. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution should be revered as sacred documents, unless you take that bit about being created equal too seriously, or unless the unelected Supreme Court issues a ruling you don’t agree with. We were certainly the determining factors in ending both world wars, and the U.S. is the only country who realized that the cold war could be ended by simply telling Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Let’s conveniently omit the fact that the United States, 70 years later, is still the only country to have actually used a nuclear weapon. Don’t get too caught up in the details. We’re awesome, and we know it.
A generation ago, I took this AP American History course. We skipped most of the dates and facts. The textbook spent most of the year in the bottom of my locker. The units focused on essential questions that were primarily answered through the examination of primary sources. We learned to interpret history for ourselves. We learned to assess bias. We learned about different kinds of oral and written accounts, and how to determine why they were created, by whom, and when. One of the units focused on the cause of the civil war. Slavery was a contributing factor. But it wasn’t the only factor, and it probably wasn’t the driving force. Slavery as a human rights issue was certainly not as important as slavery as an economic issue. But we didn’t blindly read an over-processed, committee-driven, negotiated account in a textbook about why there was a civil war. We explored the topic ourselves.
We didn’t cover most of the course. We glossed over almost all of the dates and names. I don’t think the teacher was overly concerned with our exam scores. In fact, we didn’t have any assessments or grading at all, apart from the final exam. We were intrinsically motivated, and the subject was made interesting by the approach taken by the teacher. It was certainly a time before high-stakes accountability.
I scored well enough to earn six college credits and was exempted from taking Western Civilization as a college Freshman. I don’t remember much about the exam, except that in the essay, I argued that affirmative action programs were discriminatory. I’m pretty sure I criticized Lincoln in the same essay.
I love my country. There’s video and photos all over the Internet of me waving flags and singing patriotic songs. I know most of the words to the Pledge of Allegiance (even though I think it’s a really creepy nod to fascism). I sing the words to the Armed Forces Medley and Stars and Stripes Forever every time I hear them. But I think our country can be better. There’s lots of room for improvement. And we don’t get better by ignoring the inconvenient misdeeds of our past. Our students need to study all of American history, not just the parts that make us look good. They need to draw conclusions, identify and acknowledge misdeeds, and resolve to prevent their leaders from walking down those same paths.
Maybe that’s what the critics are afraid of.