Politics & Policy

The Wrong Side of AP History

(Sergeyussr/Dreamstime)

The College Board’s new model curriculum guidelines for Advanced Placement U.S. history courses has been widely criticized, by our Stanley Kurtz and others, as being the biased product of a group of ideologues led by New York University’s Thomas Bender. Professor Bender et al. advocate the Left’s characteristic “transnational” view of U.S. history, which, as Professor Robert David Johnson of Brooklyn College argues, amounts to “little more than an attempt to ensure that students think a certain way about contemporary events.” Professor Bender is not shy about the political implications of his views on teaching history: He has argued that if history teachers had done a better job, there might not have been a U.S. invasion of Iraq during the presidency of George W. Bush.

For the details of precisely how the AP curriculum came to be shaped, we recommend Stanley Kurtz’s detailed documentation. But there is another aspect of this case that merits consideration.

When confronted with criticism of the new AP standards, the College Board’s response has been in effect to tell critics to chill out, that the standards are only a model, and that final decisions about curriculum decisions are in the hands of local school boards. In practice, that is not entirely accurate.

In Jefferson County, Colo., whose Columbine High School occupies a dark place in the American memory, a series of protests have broken out over the local school board’s decision to do exactly what the College Board says it should be doing: reviewing the AP standards and working out its own curriculum. One board member expressed concern that the AP approach unfairly downplayed the “positive aspects” of American history — we’d count liberty, prosperity, democracy, and saving the world from fascism a few times among those — and the board produced an entirely unobjectionable document advising that the curriculum should “present the most current factual information accurately and objectively,” that “theories should be distinguished from fact,” that “content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions,” etc. It also said that the materials should promote patriotism and citizenship, the benefits of the free-enterprise system, and respect for individual rights. Ironically, students who objected to being instructed in the value of individual rights availed themselves of their individual rights and walked out in protest.

Other school districts have begun the process of reviewing the standards, as is proper — as is, in fact, their job. And who is standing in their way? The College Board, in fact, which has issued a statement in favor of the Colorado protests and accused the school board of attempting to “censor” it, as though a school board’s writing its own curriculum were in any meaningful sense “censorship.” When it suits the College Board, the standards are the locals’ call; when it doesn’t suit the College Board, the locals are “censors.”

In Colorado, the curriculum fight has been intentionally conflated with a separate protest by the teachers’ union, which is demanding for its members more money and less accountability. School-district authorities have noted that students purportedly protesting the review of history standards have been asking a surprising number of questions about the local teachers’ collective-bargaining agreement. Another example of the unhappy fact that at the root of practically every major public-policy problem facing this country is either a public-sector union shouting “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” or a lunatic shouting “Allahu akbar!” Neither group is composed of especially reasonable people.

We note that when a few years back climate-change activists and gay-rights campaigners launched a crusade of their own involving the College Board — to suppress James Q. Wilson and John J. DiIulio’s popular textbook, American Government, on grounds that it was too conservative — there was not a peep about “censorship” or intellectual openness. These things go only one way.

When a school board draws up a curriculum, it will include some things and exclude some things, emphasize some and deemphasize others. This is not “censorship,” book-burning, or the return of the Vatican’s Index. But there are good decisions and bad decisions. And it is the unfortunate case that such institutions as the Jefferson County school board must keep politics in mind when going about their business: If the Left’s attempts to politicize the curriculum are to be neutralized, educational authorities must be aware of them. And if the worst that the school boards do in terms of “bias” is nodding in the direction of patriotism, free enterprise, and individual rights, it is worth noting that students should be taught about the benefits of free enterprise, which lifted the world out of darkness, that individual rights are precisely how the government down to the school-board level recognizes their right to debate and protest, and that this country long ago earned their patriotism, that there is more to American history than the Middle Passage and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

Conservatives interested in national education reform should keep this episode in mind, too. Where educational practices and standards are uniform and national, you can bet that they will be the Left’s standards. This is the fruit of the 1960s radicals’ long march through the institutions, and conservatives expecting a one-size-fits-all national standard can be assured that it will not be a conservative standard. The Jefferson County school board may or may not prevail in this particular case, but the nation is better off the closer education is kept to home, to local voters, and to local families.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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