August 16, 2015 3 Comments
You remember the furor (yes, mostly on the right) over the 2014 APUSH? Apparently the College Board has done the much harder right, and done a class job of fixing them. YAY, for them, That’s unusual these dys, usually we all just get tigid and defensive and nothing is accomplished.
Jeremy Stern holds a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University; an independent historian and history education consultant. I think he might be an endangered creature, as well, a fair man. here’s his take
The AP US History framework (APUSH) that took effect in 2014 aroused a firestorm of controversy and criticism, chiefly from the right – quickly mounting to accusations of conspiracies to impose an unpatriotic, anti-American mindset in students; denunciations by state legislatures and the Republican National Committee; even Ben Carson’s declaration that the APUSH course would leave students ready to join ISIS.
Many such critics failed to grasp the actual purpose of the document: it is not a comprehensive curriculum for APUSH classrooms (let alone an imposed mandate for all high school students), but rather a guide to the content that would appear on the redesigned APUSH exam.1 Thus, accusations that X figure or Y event had been “erased” are nonsensical: AP teachers choose their own substantive details to illustrate the framework’s broader concepts.
Nonetheless, there were legitimate concerns. While the concept and many parts of the content were sound, the framework too often took a tendentious and judgmental approach to history, appearing to urge condemnation of the past for its failure to live up to present-day moral standards. Such an approach – ignoring historical context in favor of current ideological and political priorities – is presentism, not history.2
Most organizations respond to criticism by circling the wagons and preparing for battle. Instead, to its lasting credit, the College Board took substantive criticism seriously, both from analysts with an explicitly conservative outlook (such as Chester Finn and Rick Hess) and historians such as myself. Teacher feedback would normally lead to minor revisions, but the Board instead announced an open comment period, soliciting input from all interested parties.3 The result was an extensively revised 2015 version, which has commendably sought to strike an ideologically balanced middle ground, presenting the realities of the past – good, bad and ugly – in historical context and without presentistic judgment.
The 2014 version, for example, repeatedly singled out the British North American colonies as uniquely intolerant, violent and oppressive (unfavorably comparing them with the frequently brutal Spanish empire). In the 2015 version, slavery and violence against Native Americans are not “whitewashed,” but are put into wider historical context. The Atlantic slave trade, discussed in 2014 almost uniquely in terms of British North America, in fact predated those colonies by a century, and the vast majority of slaves actually went to the Caribbean and Brazil; also, powerful African states captured and sold virtually all the slaves bought by European traders on the African coast – all points the revision correctly notes, while still emphasizing the colonies’ extensive reliance on slavery. The complexities of inter-Indian warfare and native-colonial alliances are also acknowledged, without downplaying the tragic costs of European colonization for native peoples.
The historically crucial rise of relatively egalitarian societies and representative political institutions in the colonies – all but ignored in the 2014 version – is now given due weight. What was egalitarian by 17th century standards is of course absurdly limited to modern eyes, denying even basic rights to women and non-whites – but one must understand why and how such societies and institutions were exceptional for their time to understand the foundation on which later expansions of freedom were laboriously built. Likewise, the Jacksonian rise of near-universal white male suffrage, an extraordinarily radical concept in its day (barely mentioned in the 2014 version) is now properly described in the revision.
Critics who sought a balanced document (such as Finn, Hess, myself and others) have celebrated the revisions (despite inevitable remaining quibbles) as a triumph for non-ideological history education. But some on the right are not satisfied. Stanley Kurtz, insisting the College Board remains “under the influence of leftist historians,” dismisses the changes as “superficial,” arguing that a new reference to the concept of American exceptionalism “isn’t enough” without “powerful examples.”
Yet, ironically, many critics on the left have branded the revision (often without reading it, let alone comparing the two versions) a right-wing paean to… American exceptionalism5 (as well as a shameful “cave” to right-wing pressure, and a tissue of white-male-only history suppressing the realities of slavery, oppression, and prejudice). Professor Williamjames Hull Hoffer, appearing opposite me on a CBS Evening News segment about the revisions, denounced any suggestion that western settlers displayed a “pioneering spirit” seeking “economic opportunity” as “not just a change in emphasis” but “a lie,” and any mention of liberty, citizenship, self-government and free enterprise as American ideals to be “Donald Trump talking points.”
Understand this: I agree with him. No matter how good the 2015 version is, this is the first I’ve read about it, and I’m unqualified anyway, every time anything is changed, somebody’s ox will get gored, and anything approximating history is going to displease the radicals on either side. And that’s the thing, none of us can use history if it’s too biased, or out of its time context.
So we’ll see, but I’m encouraged.