The History Wars are back, resurrected by the College Board’s decision to replace a brief and flexible set of guidelines for its AP U.S. History (APUSH) Exam with a lengthy, highly directive, and thoroughly politicized “Framework.” Today’s New York Times features an op-ed by James R. Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, hitting back at critics of the new Framework, including me. I’ll be posting a response to Grossman in time. Right now, however, I want to highlight a significant development.
Ralph Ketcham, distinguished American historian and author of a classic biography of James Madison, is the lead author of a White Paper released today by Boston’s Pioneer Institute. The report is titled, Imperiling the Republic: the Fate of U.S. History Instruction Under Common Core. In it, Ketcham and his co-authors Anders Lewis and Sandra Stotsky offer a deep and biting critique of the new AP U.S. History Framework. Here, I’ll discuss Ketcham’s response to APUSH, leaving the question of the relationship between APUSH and Common Core for another time.
According to Ketcham, U.S. history has been “completely distorted” in the new APUSH Framework. He continues:
. . . a core part of American history (the philosophical and historical antecedents to the Constitutional period, as well as the contentious issues with which the Framers grappled) has been deliberately minimized or distorted by the College Board in its redesigned AP U.S. History curriculum. How did a nation that once believed the learning of history was fundamental to the success of a democracy become a nation in which the evolution of democracy and of a republican form of government is minimized, ignored, left to chance, or politicized?
To paraphrase a Sergio Leone movie, the new APUSH curriculum represents the bad and the ugly but not the good of American history. The result is a portrait of America as a dystopian society—one riddled with racism, violence, hypocrisy, greed, imperialism, and injustice. Stories of national triumph, great feats of learning, and the legacies of some of America’s great heroes—men and women who overcame many obstacles to create a better nation—are either completely ignored or given brief mention.
In the run-up to his analysis of the Framework, Ketcham provides a fascinating account of the importance of history to the Framers, and of the way in which history has been taught in different American eras. It is a history of the teaching of American history. This material is well worth a read, particularly at this moment.
Ketcham’s “history of American history” constitutes an answer of sorts to one of James Grossman’s central points. Grossman contrasts the claims of “respectful veneration” and our thirst for historical heroes with the need for “critical engagement.” Clearly, Grossman favors more criticism and less veneration. Yet in posing the alternatives this way, Grossman misses the mark.
American history is indeed filled with admirable heroes and achievements worthy of genuine and continued respect. Yet the most important reason for studying the Founders and the principles of our Constitutional system is that healthy republican government depends upon public knowledge of its historical and intellectual foundations. This was a central insight of the Founders, and of early American educators, as Ketcham makes clear.
In giving short shrift to the background and development of America’s founding principles, the new AP U.S. history Framework does far more than merely debunk or neglect stories of genuine heroism. By leaving out a proper account of the principles and history of our democracy, along with its genuine achievements, the new AP U.S. History Framework undercuts the development of the sort of informed citizenry required by a healthy democracy.
In response to the College Board’s attempt to impose so egregiously biased and civically impoverished a curriculum on the nation — in defiance of cherished traditions of state and local control – Ketcham and his co-authors recommend that “state boards of education, governors, and state legislatures . . . disallow public schools to use” the College Board’s new APUSH Framework. In its place, the authors recommend instituting a variety of history courses for all students, broadly inspired by Paul Gagnon’s book, Educating Democracy.”
Of course, it will be difficult for any single state to withdraw from the AP U.S. History program. On the other hand, once a movement begins and one large state (perhaps Texas) or several states withdraw from APUSH, the College Board would very likely be forced to delay or abandon its new Framework.
I’ve given you Ketcham’s bottom line, but do have a look at his brief, biting, and enlightening analysis of the new APUSH Framework. Then compare it to some of the already published reactions to the Framework. It’s a safe bet that this debate will not be going away anytime soon.