Remembering Last Summer’s AP U.S. History Curriculum Controversy

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source:  Green & Write – May 3, 2016

This Friday, over 400,000 high school students will take the College Board’s AP U.S. History exam. What many of these students may not know, however, is that the curriculum they are about to be tested on was embroiled in fierce controversy not too long ago.

The conflict began back in summer 2014, when the College Board updated its AP U.S. History Curriculum Framework for the first time in several years. Shortly after the release of the new framework, a firestorm erupted over perceived anti-American bias in the curriculum. Conservatives in particular lambasted the framework, arguing that it was too negative in its portrayal of American history inasmuch as it seemed to highlight instances of American wrongdoing while neglecting the virtues of American institutions and political ideals. The Republican National Committee disparaged the framework as “radically revisionist,” and then-presidential candidate Ben Carson opined that the framework would encourage students to join ISIS.

The maligned 2014 framework represented a first attempt by the College Board to produce a coherent narrative of American history which would encourage teachers to stop teaching history as a collection of trivia facts and instead teach the subject more thematically. In doing so, though, it pressured teachers to adopt racial and gender conflict as the dominant paradigm of historical development. In this way, the 2014 framework listed “Identity” – with an emphasis on racial and gender grievances – as the first of seven “organizing themes” for the teaching of American history. Additionally, the framework was littered with references to “white Americans,” “white settlers,” “white pioneers,” and their racial biases. The concept of Manifest Destiny, for instance, was described as “built on the belief in white racial superiority.” And one of the only things students had to know about World War II was that the dropping of the atomic bomb and the internment of Japanese citizens led to the questioning of American values.

In response to the widespread outrage, the College Board eventually released a revised AP U.S. History Curriculum Framework in July 2015 which appeased conservatives by dialing back the emphasis on social conflict and presenting a less ideological view of history. The organizing theme “Identity” was replaced by “American and National Identity,” and the new curriculum included fewer mentions of racial background. Manifest Destiny was now described as motivated by “the superiority of American institutions” rather than racial hatred. World War II was more appropriately justified as a “fight for the survival of freedom and democracy,” and the internment of Japanese citizens during that conflict was listed as one of many wartime experiences that “challenged civil liberties.”

The Seal of the United States. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

While conservatives attacked the 2014 framework as reflecting the partisan allegiances of the liberal college professors who created it, I believe the controversy more likely reflected generational shifts in university history departments, which over the past thirty years have become colonized by social historians at the expense of political historians. Unlike political historians, who usually study history from the perspective of political institutions and the elites who lead them, social historians tend to focus on the experiences of “ordinary” people with an eye towards demonstrating the dominant role that race, class, and gender conflict play in motivating human behavior. Neither of these disciplinary lenses is necessarily more correct than the other, but both offer very different ways of interpreting the course of human events. To me, what made the 2014 framework so disconcerting was the way that it forced classroom teachers to preach a particular narrative of history (and one that is widely rebuked, no less). Fortunately, the 2015 curriculum, as a more balanced document, left that discretion up to the teachers themselves.

In all, the College Board’s 2015 framework deserved, and still does deserve, approbation. I am a liberal, but I often found myself agreeing with conservatives on this issue because I am wary of any U.S. history curriculum that both infringes upon the free speech of teachers and proffers a narrative of history which encourages identity-building through the balkanization of student populations along racial and gender lines. The long-standing purpose of social studies is to help students understand each other as citizens, not as members of competing tribes of victims and oppressors. The College Board thus has a duty to give people a nonpartisan and ideologically unbiased view of American history – one which transcends an us-and-them narrative and encourages students to see their peers first and foremost as fellow citizens united in the common social enterprise of building a more perfect union.

Contact David: dwc@msu.edu

– See more at: http://edwp.educ.msu.edu/green-and-write/2016/remembering-last-summers-ap-u-s-history-curriculum-controversy/#sthash.onfK5Ijx.dpuf

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.