By Paul Horton.
The Advanced Placement United States History course recently revised by the College Board has recently undergone a second major revision in response to critics from the right who argue that the first revision did not emphasize specific content and that it focused on social history and neglected political and military history.
The second revision responds to these criticisms, but many critics on the right and some who want to see more specific content required continue their criticisms.
Teachers of AP History are growing restless; they have to get on to the teaching of history this year, caught in the middle of a political firefight and another chapter in the culture wars.
The culture wars have no place in history classes except to be taught as a political issue.
Good history is inclusive. Good teachers can combine social history with traditional political and military narratives. Good history teachers understand that religion is a very complex and foundational aspect of United States History. This does not mean that teachers should be teaching “providential history” as some ministers would, it means understanding that the idea of “providential history” has shaped the thinking of some Americans and groups of Americans in very important ways.
The left tends to be identified by the right as promoting social history, identity politics based on victimization narratives, and as hostile to the role of religion in American history. Many veterans don’t believe that the left respects the very real heroism displayed by Americans during wars. There is some truth in this critique because the AP tends to deemphasize military history in favor of free response questions that focus on the more hotly debated issues of race, class, and gender history. On the other hand, the left sees its efforts as attempting to integrate the history of important reform movements, minorities, and political perspectives that were absent from most textbooks and courses until the late seventies as a legacy of Cold War conservatism and McCarthyite anticommunism. So we have a kind of tug of war that intensifies every few years: the debate over the NEH standards in the early and mid nineties is reigniting with the controversy surrounding the Jefferson County, Colorado suspension of the new AP curriculum and the attempts by conservatives to modify the new AP US.
What is written in a textbook or in a set of standards, however, is not history. History is not set in stone. It is not like the Ten Commandants. Edward Ayers, an excellent historian and President of the University of Richmond, is fond of saying that revisionist history is a good thing, like revisionist science. We find new evidence all of the time and good history changes to incorporate that new evidence. History changes, perspectives change, and new perspectives are added to achieve a fuller, better-developed story.
Most history teachers are neither on the left or the right, they simply want to communicate to their students how important and complex the American story is. It is time to stop “waving the bloody shirt” of the culture wars.
The encouragement and the training of history teachers are more important than supporting or fighting a particular history curriculum. History teachers should have history degrees and they should be passionate about teaching history. The best thing we can do as concerned citizens is to encourage the best-prepared and most passionate candidates to pursue teaching careers.
Good history teachers require their students to read, debate, think, and write. Good history teachers are going to make sure that their students are exposed to different points of view and that they discuss as many issues from as many points of view as possible.
If we should be concerned about the AP United States History curriculum, it is that we must understand that the AP program is not the Holy Grail. US News and World Report and the Washington Post’s Jay Matthews have encouraged the AP cult. Educrats, many policy wonks, and administrators looking for metrics that might be used to indicate “improvement” seem to be in love with the idea of enrolling as many students as possible in AP courses to make their schools look better. While AP might raise the bar at many schools, it does not necessarily prepare kids for college level courses in history that require much more reading and much more focus on research and research writing.
When I travel, I tour college bookstores to get an idea of what lower level college history courses require. Last month, for example, I visited the Grinnell College student bookstore. Neither the current nor the former AP US curriculum will adequately prepare a student for a lower division History course at Grinnell. The amount of reading and analysis required to succeed in a Grinnell course is light years ahead of what AP requires. I also visited the University of Iowa bookstore and found similar requirements for a major public university. Most college professor readers at AP reading don’t think that a student should get credit for anything less than a 5, and most do not believe than the multiple choice section of the test measures anything significant.
AP does not prepare students for college history courses. Rigorous history teaching prepares students for college courses. Students should read narrative histories, primary and secondary sources, and interpretive articles. They should be required to prepare short analytical papers and research papers. Multiple-choice questions do not prepare students for college history or humanities courses.
Rather than focusing their concern on the nuts and bolts of the College Board History curriculum, teachers, students, and parents should be more concerned about why the College Board has such a big influence over national curricula in general. The College Board should not set the standards for the entire country. The recent revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has demonstrated widespread concern about the Federal Government acting too strongly to shape curricula. The College Board, similarly, has shaped the most challenging courses and the popularity of AP as a moniker of school excellence is like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. But despite its nonprofit status, the College Board is out to make a buck.
The College Board has been very aggressive in marketing its products through professional development, political lobbying, and the attempt to create K-12 vertical teaming. The College Board, ETS, Pearson Education, McGraw-Hill, and Harcourt Brace are big businesses and they all want bigger market share. I would say that all educators and parents should be very concerned standardized testing in general. Hundreds of colleges and universities all over the country have conducted their own studies and have determined that SAT or ACT scores do not predict success in college. A growing number of these colleges and universities no longer require the SAT or ACT for admission.
I have been a classroom history teacher for 34 years and in my experience many of the hardest working and most successful students I have taught have not scored well on the ACT, SAT, or the United States History AP. In the case of the APUSH, the test is normed on objective multiple-choice questions. As a grader I was asked to score higher or lower depending on how my group of student essays scored on the multiple-choice questions. As a teacher with a lot of experience, I do not consider the AP US History exam as a result to be a valid measure of student ability or potential.
As a teacher who interviews former students and speaks regularly to college professors, I know that AP does not require the depth of reading, thinking, or writing to adequately prepare an excellent student for a college history course. A well-taught AP US course is not, in my opinion, the equivalent of an average freshman level course at a public or private university or college. I believe that these corporations are out to make a buck and that they all have an interest in perpetuating a very expensive sham.
A serious discussion about high school history should not begin with debating the merits of the current APUSH course; it should begin with questions about why the College Board has so much influence over high school curricula.
Previous posts in this series:
Part 1: Weighing in on the New History Wars: Oct. 6, 2014
The New History Wars Part 2: A Classroom Simulation: Oct. 14, 2014.
Paul Horton teaches History at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and was an AP United States History Reader (grader) for five years and former director of the Illinois chapter of the National Council for History Education.