Politics & Policy

The Overheated Reactions to the New AP U.S. History Framework

Star-Spangled Banner flag at the Smithsonian National Museum.

Last year, the College Board released a comprehensive framework for teaching Advanced Placement American history (APUSH). It was an earnest effort to help high-school teachers understand what students should learn, but content-wise it was pretty awful. It read as if it had been crafted by agenda-driven, progressive historians seeking a soapbox for their efforts to convince young people that America is a pretty awful place.

To its credit, after initially lashing out at the critics, the College Board took a deep breath, acknowledged the bias and recognized the need to redo the framework. It promised that a much-improved version would be issued in 2015. So far, so good, but the proof would of course be in the product. In National Review Online, we urged critics to adopt President Reagan’s adage “trust but verify” — especially fitting, given the cartoonish treatment that the original framework afforded the 40th president.

Last week, the College Board released its revised APUSH framework and, to our pleasant surprise, it’s not just better — it’s flat-out good. It’s good because it offers a contextualized, robust account of American history. It no longer talks merely about the ravages of capitalism, but also about American economic dynamism; no longer only the moral complexities of Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb, but also the fight against fascism of which that decision was part. No longer does it frame colonial and 19th-century history almost wholly in terms of 21st-century notions of race dynamics; now it takes care to acknowledge the layers of ethnic tensions and the significance of other ideas and imperatives. Religion and civil society are now in evidence. The caricature of Reagan has given way to a reasonable treatment of what he sought to do.

RELATED: How the College Board Politicized History

The goal of this entire endeavor, as we see it, is to give high-school AP teachers a framework that emphasizes America’s rich history rather than today’s political biases. We do not seek history that slights the contributions of liberal presidents or hypes those of conservatives, nor one that downplays authentic tensions of class and race. These are integral to the story. It’s simply not historically accurate or pedagogically sound to suggest that most every development in American history should be viewed primarily through the lens of race, class conflict, and federal policy.

In response to the College Board’s balanced handiwork, how have today’s hyperbolic critics responded? So far, the results are mixed. Plenty of responsible actors have complimented the revision. Still, from some of the more unrelenting precincts on the left we hear a cry that the result somehow signals a retreat by the College Board. At Quartz, one pundit complained, “Get excited for the inevitable 2016 revisions, where slavery will be referred to as ‘involuntary labor,’ Native Americans will be called ‘pre-Americans,’ and casus belli for the Civil War will be diluted down to a simple dispute on the true height of Lincoln’s top hat.” At Vox.com, journalist Libby Nelson lamented that “Two words — ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobia’ — have been omitted entirely.” Even before the revised framework was visible, a Center for American Progress blog was citing a Newsweek story to grump that the number of mentions of “slavery” had declined. (Turns out Newsweek was wrong; there’s no de-emphasis on slavery.)

RELATED: Surprise — The New AP U.S. History Framework Is Scrupulously Fair-Minded

Meanwhile, most on the right have gracefully acknowledged the sensible outcome. A few, however, continue to grumble that the revisions are just new wallpaper on a still-dangerous structure. They insist that the new framework doesn’t do enough to tout American exceptionalism — that it doesn’t mention John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” speech, any battles from the Civil War or World War II, or any American generals but for George Washington.

Both kinds of criticism share a common failing: They treat history as bean-counting, tallying which side gets more mentions or scores more points in service of one or another contemporary political agenda. Sure, we’d love it if the framework hailed Winthrop and contained more military history. But no historical account is ever complete or perfectly neutral (much less “objective”). Moreover, the APUSH framework isn’t binding on what teachers do; they’ll always bring their enthusiasms and views. The acid test of their teaching is how students fare on the end-of-year exam. Still, the proper goal of a high-school American history course, Advanced Placement or not, should be a sweeping survey of the essential developments in the nation’s past, one that helps young people make sense of why those things came about and what came of them. Those who craft any course framework or syllabus should respect that mission and resist the impulse to lard the curriculum with hobbyhorses or imbue it with favored narratives. We think the new College Board and its participating educators met this standard. 

Most Americans, whatever their political leanings, want our nation’s history to be something more than a jousting match.

As for American journalism, this entire fracas has been exacerbated by overheated media coverage. Rather than reporting that the College Board heeded feedback, convened experts, re-examined its handiwork, and produced a better, more balanced product, the press went for melodrama. Rather than asking whether the new framework is less agenda-driven, journalists have reached for story lines like “the College Board caved to conservatives.”

In the race to identify winners and losers, the media have gotten the story exactly wrong. The real story is that most Americans, whatever their political leanings, want our nation’s history to be something more than a jousting match. They want tomorrow’s citizens to understand the country that they’re part of, its achievements as well as its shortcomings, its triumphs as well as its losses, its unum as well as its pluribus.

As we read it, that’s about where the APUSH framework has ended up, though this accomplishment is all too easy to miss amid today’s ideological and journalistic gamesmanship.

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