In the battles over schooling and American history, it sometimes seems that the forces of agenda-driven identity politics keep racking up wins. That’s what makes this morning’s release of the newly revised Advancement Placement U.S. History framework a happy turn. The College Board’s new framework is not just better than the atrocious version released last year — it’s good in its own right.
The College Board’s 2014 framework for teaching Advanced Placement U.S. History, the gold standard for high-school history, provoked a well-deserved firestorm. The first-ever attempt to provide a comprehensive guide for teaching the course to a half-million students each year yielded an unqualified mess. Larry Krieger, a retired high-school history teacher, was the first to flag the single-minded focus on American wrongdoing, racial division, and left-wing heroics. Stanley Kurtz penned an illuminating series of posts here at NRO on the framework’s politicization of history. The Republican National Committee, in turn, passed a resolution deeming the standards “radically revisionist” and calling on Congress to insist on their further review.
Some of the most symbolically significant changes may be in the treatment of World War II and the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The 2014 framework highlighted three things that students needed to know about the Second World War. In order, they were: Wartime mobilization provided economic opportunities for women and minorities; American values were compromised by the atomic bomb and the internment of Japanese Americans; and the Allies won owing to our combined industrial strength.
Notice anything missing?
Of Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War, the 2014 framework read (in its laughable entirety): “President Ronald Reagan, who initially rejected détente with increased defense spending, military action, and bellicose rhetoric, later developed a friendly relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.” The framework managed to depict Reagan as simultaneously a bully and a naif. That’s the view of left-wing history departments, of course, but it is cartoon history. The 2015 framework now reads, “Reagan asserted U.S. opposition to communism through speeches, diplomatic efforts, limited military interventions, and a buildup of nuclear and conventional weapons,” and notes that these actions “were important in ending the Cold War.”
Whereas the 2014 framework gave hagiographic accounts of FDR’s and LBJ’s domestic initiatives, the 2015 version gives a much more tempered account. The 2014 framework explained, “The liberalism of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal drew on earlier progressive ideas and represented a multifaceted approach to both the causes and effects of the Great Depression.” The 2015 framework now reads, “Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal attempted to end the Great Depression by using government power to provide relief to the poor, stimulate recovery, and reform the American economy.” This is both less starry-eyed and more accurate.
Faced with a barrage of well-deserved criticism, the College Board has responded with an honest, fair-minded framework for teaching the grand sweep of American history.
Similarly, the 2014 framework asserted that, under President Lyndon Johnson, “Liberal ideals were realized in Supreme Court decisions that expanded democracy and individual freedoms, Great Society social programs and policies, and the power of the federal government, yet these unintentionally helped energize a new conservative movement.” The 2015 version is far more tempered in subtle but significant ways. It reads, “Liberal ideas found expression in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which attempted to use federal legislation and programs to end racial discrimination, eliminate poverty, and address other social issues.” The exuberant celebration of FDR and LBJ has given way to a more concrete focus on what they “attempted” to do. That’s more like it. Reagan, FDR, and LBJ should all get their due for their efforts — and fair-minded discussion of their successes, missteps, and shortcomings.
Changes like these are a reassuring sign. But dwelling only on these headline items actually understates the thoroughness of the line-by-line revisions. In 2014, the first of seven organizing themes for American History was “Identity” — with an accompanying emphasis on race and gender grievances throughout (even when the discussion seemed blatantly anachronistic). In the new version, “Identity” has become “American and National Identity,” and the emphasis throughout is on our shared history — with racial divides and gender politics presented as one part of that larger story. For instance, the framework no longer describes Manifest Destiny as simply “built on a belief in white racial superiority” but rather motivated by a desire for “economic opportunities and religious refuge” and a belief in “the superiority of American institutions.”
Those institutions — self-government, civil society, and democratic capitalism — are all now given the respect and attention they deserve. The framework now addresses economic growth and American entrepreneurialism where before the only economics to speak of consisted of allusions to inequality and exploitation. Astonishingly, discussion of religion and its import was largely absent in 2014. That is no longer the case. Whereas in the 2014 framework one could be forgiven for thinking that the Declaration of Independence was consequential only insofar as it inspired rebellion in Haiti, the new framework makes clear that the Declaration “resonated throughout American history, shaping Americans’ understanding of the ideals on which the nation was based.” The 2015 version encourages teachers to spend up to a month offering “an in-depth focus on the ideas of freedom and democracy as expressed in the founding documents” or examining “the founding documents and their resonance in the thoughts and actions of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Faced with a barrage of well-deserved criticism, the College Board went back to the drawing board. It has returned with a framework that offers an honest, fair-minded framework for teaching the grand sweep of American history. There is no effort to paper over the darker chapters of America’s past or its continuing struggle to live up to our founding ideals (nor should there be!) — but these are now presented alongside our nation’s ideals and staggering accomplishments. The result is certainly not perfect. There are elements we would choose to add and points that could be articulated more fully or fairly. But those are quibbles. Last year’s framework reflected the agenda-driven view of American history so prominent in higher education. This year’s framework gets the balance right between the pluribus and the unum, and does justice to our nation’s remarkable history.
— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Max Eden is program manager for education-policy studies at AEI.