The College Board Still Can’t See Europe Straight

Bust of John Milton at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland (Photo: Viorel Dudau/Dreamstime)
Its standards for the AP European History exam omit vital concepts such as liberty and individual endeavor.

The College Board doesn’t take criticism well. The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has twice called out the College Board for writing progressive propaganda and calling it a standard for an Advanced Placement test — first when we criticized its AP United States History test in 2014, and then when we criticized its AP European History test in 2016 (in a report called “The Disappearing Continent”). Each time, the College Board pretended it had made no mistakes — and then did a shabby job of fixing its errors, in hopes that its critics would go away.

The College Board has a standard procedure in place, which it’s been using to respond to our criticism of the Advanced Placement European History (APEH) standards. First it says nothing is wrong with its exam. Then it silently makes superficial changes — and says the exam is now, as it always has been, perfect. When we find that the exam is still grossly flawed, it repeats that nothing is wrong with its exam. Then, if the public is still asking questions, it makes further silent and superficial changes.

Every silent change the College Board make is an admission of how badly it presents history. Moreover, the board’s surreptitiousness about admitting error — its refusal to acknowledge that it made changes in the first place — confirms that it is not engaged in good-faith efforts at reform.

Frederick M. Hess and Grant Addison have written at NRO to defend the College Board’s most recent silent revision, this time of its APEH standards. Hess and Addison address a few of the criticisms I made in my December 2017 article “Churchill In, Columbus Still Out,” but not my most serious criticisms of the structural flaws of the College Board’s APEH standards.

Above all, the College Board still omits liberty in its outline of AP European History. The very words liberty and freedom are still almost completely absent from its standards, and so is the long struggle for liberty that defines European history. You’ll never learn from the College Board that Michel de Montaigne argued for tolerance, that John Milton championed freedom of speech, or that English lawyers and judges built English liberty upon the common law.

The College Board still omits the entire history of modern Europe’s unique development of the architecture of modern knowledge — every intellectual discipline we use to think about the world, from astronomy to geology in the natural sciences, and from art history to sociology in the humanities and social sciences. You’ll never learn from the College Board that Jean-François Champollion deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics, that Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace pioneered computer science, or that Gregor Mendel discovered modern genetics.

The College Board still omits chance and individual endeavor, telling students that European history is all inevitable social and economic development, which leads inexorably to a secular, well-governed welfare state. If you want to know about the Age of Discovery and Conquest, the College Board will tell you about the compass, the quadrant, and the lateen rig — but not the names of Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, or Francisco Pizarro. If you want to know why Europeans don’t all just settle down to follow directives from bureaucrats in Brussels, the College Board won’t give you a clue.

The College Board omits chance and individual endeavor, telling students that European history is all inevitable social and economic development, which leads inexorably to a secular, well-governed welfare state.

The College Board still doesn’t give a reason why students should study Europe’s history in the first place. It doesn’t argue that European history is exceptional, important, or interesting, and it doesn’t mention that Americans should study Europe’s past because it is our history. If you want a new generation of students to be interested enough in European history to become history teachers and professors, the College Board will dash your hopes.

It’s true that the College Board’s revised exam no longer gratuitously pleads for socialism, but the board still omits any straightforward discussion of the principles, institutions, and benefits of economic liberty. You’d never know from the College Board how the free market led Britain through the first Industrial Revolution, or what Britain’s success owes to engineers such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, inventors such as Henry Bessemer, and businessmen such as William Pilkington.

It’s true that the College Board’s revised exam comes closer to providing an accurate description of the horrors of Soviet history. Yet its new account still pulls its punches by failing to state explicitly that the regime committed starvation — genocide of the Ukrainians, and smaller genocides and ethnic cleansings of nations including Balts, Tatars, and Poles.

And the College Board’s retention of the Soviet propaganda phrase “liquidation of the kulaks” remains a vitally important error. The Soviet Union justified its mass starvation of the peasantry, meant to terrorize them into submission, by inventing an imaginary class of kulaks (rich peasants, supposedly) and sentencing to starvation or exile as many “kulaks” as needed — selected arbitrarily by local Communist Party cadres to fulfill the quota of arrests from Moscow. Historians such as Orlando Figes use the phrase in quotation marks, with longer explanation to inform the reader that the phrase hid mass slaughter. But the College Board still uses the phrase “liquidation of the kulaks” without quotation marks and without explaining that the phrase meant war against the peasantry, anti-peasant terror, or, most accurately, terror-starvation of the peasantry. Hess and Addison unfortunately extend the life of this propaganda when they describe it blandly as “a clarification of a 20th-century Cyrillic class description.”

Beyond all these unaddressed errors, there remains the College Board’s continuing incompetence regarding matters of basic historical fact. The board cites Thomas More and Juan Luis Vives as illustrative examples of “monarchical control,” when they should be illustrative examples of “Christian humanists.” The Board cites Charles I of Spain and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire as two separate people, when they are the same man. The board cites Edmund Burke, who died in 1797, as a 19th-century thinker. The Board cites Britain’s Poor Law and Contagious Disease Acts, respectively enacted in 1834 and 1864, to illustrate social policies toward the poor enacted between 1648 and 1815. The College Board doesn’t just interpret history badly; it can’t be trusted to get the dates right.

The NAS would be delighted if the College Board displayed “a welcoming posture and good-faith revisions” to our critiques. It has not. It did not solicit feedback or criticism from outside its progressive circle. It has made minimal, careless revisions in response to criticism. It has concealed its initial errors from the public. It acts as every irresponsible monopoly does — and its conduct underscores the need for the establishment of another assessment organization to rival the College Board. Without such competition, the College Board will continue to abuse its monopoly.

The worst part of the College Board’s behavior is that it leaves its defenders hung out to dry. Last year, Larry Krieger wrote to defend the College Board against our criticisms in “The Disappearing Continent.” The College Board threw Krieger under the bus when it made its first round of silent revisions, which acknowledged that the critique in “The Disappearing Continent” was right after all. I am afraid that the College Board will likewise throw Hess and Addison under the bus when it makes further revisions in response to “Churchill In, Columbus Still Out.” This shabby, unreliable behavior by the College Board should give pause to anyone else who wishes to defend the latest revision of their exam.


Give the College Board Credit for Acting on Conservatives’ Concerns

The Murky European Future

High-School Education is Failing Many Students

— David Randall is the director of communications for the National Association of Scholars.