L.A. Times Defends the College Board on AP U.S. History

Michael Hiltzik, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times has published a heated response to my piece on the intellectual and political background of the College Board’s changes to the AP U.S. History Exam.

Hiltzik accuses me of being part of “the right’s effort to suck the teaching of advanced U.S. History into the culture wars.” Actually, the College Board itself became responsible for sucking history education into the culture wars when it substituted a massively detailed set of teaching guidelines for the brief conceptual outline it issued in previous years. That earlier outline, by virtue of its brevity, wisely allowed AP U.S. History to be taught from a variety of perspectives. Because of its length and its inevitably controversial choices of particular themes and issues to emphasize, the College Board’s new Framework cannot help but stoke public debate.

The College Board itself was perfectly aware that its unprecedented decision to issue a detailed teaching framework would stir up public controversy. In a 2013 article published in the OAH Magazine of History, Lawrence Charap, in overall charge of the new Framework’s development, said “the choices made around which details are explicitly included in the Curriculum Framework will inevitably invite detractors.” Charap goes on to acknowledge receiving feedback from AP U.S. history teachers complaining about the new Framework’s “political correctness.” Invoking memories of the “history wars,” Charap goes on to say that he expects the new Framework will kick up a debate among “historians, history teachers, and the public.” Charap claims to welcome such debate.

So the College Board knew this controversy was coming, and could easily have avoided it by sticking with the brief and flexible conceptual outline it had used for many years. Or, if that outline needed tweaking, this could easily have been done without creating the vastly more coercive attempt to frame the teaching of American history that eventually emerged.

Hiltzik suggests that I want “everything” about U.S. history to be “viewed positively and uncritically by Americans themselves or by people outside its borders.” I neither said nor believe that. I do believe that the Framework is far too negatively tilted. Again, however, differences of this sort should be left to states, school districts, teachers and parents to resolve. The extended, selective, and directive nature of the new Framework inhibits freedom of decision at the local level.

When I say that historian Thomas Bender, who seeks fundamental changes to the way American history is taught, wants less taught about the Pilgrims, Plymouth Colony, and John Winthrop’s City on the Hill, and more taught about the role of the plantation economy and the slave trade in the rise of an intrinsically exploitative international capitalism, Hiltzik asks “What’s wrong with that?” Hiltzik sees Bender’s preference as a welcome move away from “stereotypes” toward a focus on “the flow of underlying historical trends.”

That is far too simple.

There is plenty to criticize in John Winthrop and the Pilgrims, of course. And there is real distance between the ideas that shaped Pilgrim society and the principles that eventually came to serve as the foundation of American democracy. Yet there is important continuity as well. All of that needs to be traced and discussed in any good account of American political and cultural history. When Hiltzik dismisses the very subject matter of Winthrop and the Pilgrims as a “stereotype,” he betrays the kind of bias that taints the AP U.S. History Framework itself, since the Framework greatly downplays political and religious history in favor of a negatively tilted social-historical approach.

Nor need we accept the notion that attention to social history and “the flow of underlying historical trends” is identical with the recognition of capitalist exploitation. Leftist American historians paint capitalism is inevitably flawed, even racist, at its core. That is eminently disputable. Hiltzik, however, seems to have made up his mind on that score.

Again, my purpose is neither to force the teaching of American history into an entirely positive mold, nor to prevent states, districts, teachers or parents who prefer the approach from left-leaning social history from adopting it. On the contrary, I am asking for a return to a brief conceptual outline that allows a variety of approaches.

Thomas Bender and the historians behind the La Pietra report have made a concerted public effort to radically reshape the teaching of American history at every educational level. Those efforts may be familiar to historians, but they are not familiar to the American public. If we are going to have the public debate over the teaching of AP U.S. History that the College Board says it welcomes, why shouldn’t Americans be informed about this movement among historians, and its long-standing alliance with the College Board and the authors of the new Framework?

The College Board has claimed merely to be updating the teaching of AP U.S. History to bring it into conformity with the “findings” of current scholarship, as if the latest scholarship in American history was the equivalent of recent discoveries in physics or chemistry, with no political agenda of its own. It’s important to bring across to the public the underlying political agenda of historians who’ve influenced the College Board, so as to puncture this myth of academic neutrality.

Hiltzik says he favors “critical” history. Well, I’m offering a critical history of intellectual and political influences on the College Board. It’s a history that’s sorely needed.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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