‘The past is never dead,” Faulkner famously wrote. “It’s not even past.” Thus, this time thanks to the College Board, which has proposed a revised “curriculum framework” for the Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) exam just under half a million high school students sit for annually, we are fighting over the past once again.
This spring, the College Board replaced its longtime five-page topic list for APUSH teachers with a 98-page “curriculum framework” on which the APUSH exam will be based beginning with the May 2015 test. The new document, prepared by a 13-member “AP U.S. History Redesign Commission” and a nine-member “AP U.S. History Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee,” divides American history into nine periods, each of which involves several key concepts and sub-concepts. It is these, with their sins of commission and omission, that critics have assailed.
The idea of Manifest Destiny, which asserted U.S. power in the Western Hemisphere and supported U.S. expansion westward, was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority, and helped to shape the era’s political debates.
As proof of a subtle agenda, the omissions are certainly insufficient evidence; the document is a framework, not a textbook. The interpretative statements are more compelling. As Krieger and Robbins suggest, “the new Framework inculcates a consistently negative view of the nation’s past.” In Period 1 — 1491-1607 — for example, American Indians and Africans have rich, robust “social, political, and economic structures” (1.1) that are destroyed by the arrival of Europeans “with little experience dealing with people who were different from themselves” (1.3.I.A). Little in that century merits mention other than Europe’s subjugation of this or that race and the devastation wrought.
Although the New Deal did not completely overcome the Depression, it left a legacy of reforms and agencies that endeavored to make society and individuals more secure, and it helped foster a long-term political realignment in which many ethnic groups, African Americans, and working-class communities identified with the Democratic Party.
Only a DNC operative could fail to see that this summation of the Roosevelt era is unjustifiably sunny.
Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, calls the framework “a briefing document on progressive and leftist views of the American past,” weaving together “a vaguely Marxist or at least materialist reading of the key events with the whole litany of identity group grievances.” APUSH students will still learn a bit of American history, he says; it will just concentrate on “broad-stroke economic developments, class envy, racial struggle, women’s rights, and the rise of the Progressive movement” — a not valueless, but highly distorting, selection of information.
There are certainly high-school students now learning more about those things than the Sons of Liberty, Marbury v. Madison, or Robert E. Lee — but the danger of this new College Board framework is that it nationalizes those consequences. Despite the fact that educators must adhere to state standards, the framework is a de facto usurpation of state educational standards by the College Board, which knows that states, in the interests of their best students’ collegiate aspirations, will bend their standards to accommodate the College Board. Under this scheme, all curricula for which the College Board has a test, at least for elite secondary students, will gradually tilt left.
Wood, though, points to an additional danger of a more influential AP test:
In 2011, when Tom Klingenstein and I visited Bowdoin College on an invitation from a student organization, we pointed out to a large group of students the fragmentary quality of the history curriculum. A student in the audience schooled us to the effect that Bowdoin students — all of them — had no need for a survey course in American history because they had had all that in their AP history courses in high school. He offered himself as proof of principle: “Ask me any question. I’ll ace it.”
“Bowdoin Syndrome” — the unjustified intellectual arrogance Wood and Klingenstein observed that prompted the controversial 2013 study What Does Bowdoin Teach? — is a regular feature of elite colleges, where students exhibit, in Wood’s words, “an unearned and undeserved assumption of omni-competence” prompted, in part, by the ability to gain exemptions from introductory college courses with high AP exam scores. A student’s belief that he has mastered a subject is, though wrong, at least tolerable if he has received a strong, wide-ranging core education; it is the worst type of arrogance — ignorant arrogance — if the sum of his historical knowledge is the transformation of labor conditions in the late 19th century.
The College Board’s continual purchase on the curricula of America’s top high schools increases the likelihood that American schools will produce many more of the second type of student than the first.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.