The College Board, which has been in the process of updating its ubiquitous, influential Advanced Placement courses, recently released an extensive revamp of its AP European History framework. Last June, the College Board’s first attempt drew a blistering, 12,200-word critique from the National Association of Scholars (NAS), which charged it with “warping and gutting the history of Europe to make it serve today’s progressive agenda.” In response, the College Board released a revised version in late 2017. Has the College Board successfully addressed the problems?
The NAS sure doesn’t think so. In “Churchill In, Columbus Still Out,” David Randall, writing for the NAS, argues that, while modestly improved, the Fall 2017 AP European History framework still offers “an ideologically biased version of European history straightjacketed by progressive dogma.” In its initial critique, NAS compellingly argued that the 2015 AP European History revision “distorted or ignored” free markets, economic liberty, religion, and the role of Great Britain while downplaying “the evils of Communism and the brutal destructiveness of Soviet rule.” The College Board’s 2017 revisions sought to address the concerns. Indeed, Randall notes that the revisions incorporated a “great deal of our critique.” Yet he nonetheless concludes that they were generally “superficial” and failed to correct for ideological bias. Randall dismally concludes, on behalf of NAS, that the College Board is “not capable of reforming itself to provide a minimum level of quality” in AP European History.
Those who follow such things will remember a similar contretemps playing out a few years ago over the College Board’s AP U.S. History framework. In 2014, the revised U.S. History standards drew well-deserved criticism for sketching a politicized, ideologically skewed picture of American history. NAS played a crucial role in flagging the problems and pushing the College Board to act. To its credit, the College Board took the concerns seriously, engaging with critics and initiating a public review period of the standards — culminating in a meaningful and, ultimately, “flat-out good” rewrite.
Once again, we think that the NAS’s initial critique was appropriate and timely, and applaud the NAS’s invaluable role in calling out problematic history curricula. But we find the most recent criticism to be off-base and even counterproductive. To our eyes, the College Board engaged in substantial, appropriate revisions in response to the concerns that were raised.
Take, for example, the revisions made to the framework’s treatment of the Soviet Union. Previously, NAS blasted the 2015 framework for soft-pedaling “the revolutionary violence of the Socialist tradition” and “the evils of Communism, the brutal destructiveness of Soviet rule, and the aggressiveness of Soviet foreign policy.” Randall acknowledges that the 2017 framework has “modified its treatment of the Soviet Union to give a more accurate depiction of its horrific character.” He notes that “the standards now describe the ‘communist Soviet Union’ as ‘authoritarian’ and the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s as ‘devastating,’ and they acknowledge that Stalin’s ‘centralized program of rapid economic modernization’ had ‘severe repercussions for the population.’” It’s hard to dismiss these changes as superficial.
Similarly, the 2015 framework was knocked by NAS for excluding the “formative role” and “enduring particularities” of nations, their religions, and culture. The 2017 framework now adds a major theme on “National and European Identity,” which, notes Randall, places “nations and national cultures in the center of the [European History] examination.” Similarly, Randal concedes that the College Board “has removed a good portion of the tendentious language criticizing free markets and slanting historical analysis in favor of government intervention.”
If establishment entities get blasted even when they engage in good faith, it’s hard to blame them for lapsing into the smug, insular leftism that is all too common on campus and among historians today.
Such improvements mean that NAS’s fresh criticisms of the revised framework frequently read like quibbles. For instance, while Randall concedes the “many small improvements” made to the treatment of free markets — with descriptions of capitalism and socialism “extensively rewritten” to be more impartial — he takes issue with the framework’s frequent use of capitalism (a “Marxizing abstraction”) rather than free markets. While we too like the phrase “free markets” — we work at the American Enterprise Institute, after all — capitalism is an economic system composed of free markets, and the two are routinely used interchangeably (and nonprejudicially).
When it comes to the Soviet Union, NAS slams the College Board for “retain[ing] the Communist euphemism ‘liquidation of the kulaks’ to refer to the indiscriminate mass murder and exile of peasants.” NAS says that describing “the landowning peasantry” effectively “endorses the Communist propaganda” that the Soviets “focused their slaughter on the richer peasants.” This strikes us as a bizarre complaint. For one, as a historical term, “kulaks” directly refers to landowning Russian peasants, and providing a clarification of a 20th-century Cyrillic class description doesn’t amount to an endorsement anything. For another, “liquidation of the kulaks” is a commonly accepted reference to Stalin’s policy of expropriation and mass murder. History is littered with euphemisms that have taken on an explicit meaning (e.g., Boston Tea Party), and using them strikes us as neither biased nor problematic.
None of this is to suggest that the new framework is without problems. The standards clearly do not “endorse” Soviet Communism, but the framing of concepts can feel a bit generous. For example, the framework appropriately notes that, in the Soviet bloc, “individual choices were directed by the state” but also that “basic needs were provided within an authoritarian context.” Any student of Eastern-bloc famine and poverty would likely challenge that bland assertion regarding the provision of basic needs. Similarly, there is an asymmetry in how free markets and socialism are discussed. While discussion of capitalism focuses on things like “consumerism” and “wealth distribution,” the discussion of socialism and Communism is repeatedly laced with reference to their putative commitment to “equality.”
But it strikes us that such complaints tend to be nitpicky and deal more with tenor than with any obvious problems. So, while the new framework could be improved, NAS’s critique of the revised framework is unduly harsh — and seems to presume that the College Board is incorrigible and operating in bad faith. That seems conducive to neither healthy debate nor good history. Indeed, it seems to us that the College Board has shown a willingness and ability to revisit its work to help ensure that American students learn history in a way that is challenging, fair-minded, and removed from today’s cultural agendas.
Now, a pressing concerns is why, each time the College Board’s takes on a history framework, the first cut is so consistently biased. The problem is one part academic bias, one part the College Board’s failing to engage with conservative scholars, and one part organizational blind spots. Addressing this requires that the College Board show that it is willing to constructively engage, and we believe it has, but it also means that conservatives have to be prepared to respond in kind. After all, if establishment entities are going to get blasted even when they engage in good faith, it’s hard to blame them for lapsing into the kind of smug, insular leftism that is all too common on campus and among historians today.
Given how few in academe, the discipline of history, or curricular design are inclined to solicit feedback from conservatives or act on it, it’s a mistake to casually reject a welcoming posture and good-faith revisions. As much as we respect the NAS’s vital work, we think here is a case where they look like an outfit that just won’t accept victory.