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Bye, Bye, American History

Professors and historians urged opposition to the College Board’s new curriculum for teaching AP U.S. History.

1053‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ by Emanuel Leutze, 1851. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The memory hole, a creation of George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” was a mechanism for separating a society’s disapproved ideas from its dominant ideas. The unfavored ideas disappeared, Orwell wrote, “on a current of warm air” into furnaces.

In the U.S., the memory-sorting machine may be the College Board’s final revision of the Advanced Placement examination for U.S. history, to be released later this summer.

The people responsible for the new AP curriculum really, really hate it when anyone says what they are doing to U.S. history is tendentious and destructive. In April, the nine authors of the “curriculum framework” published a relatively brief open letter to rebut “uninformed criticisms” of the revision.

Last week, 56 professors and historians published a petition on the website of the National Association of Scholars, urging opposition to the College Board’s framework. Pushback against the new AP U.S. history curriculum has also emerged in Texas, Colorado, Tennessee, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Georgia.


To one liberal newspaper columnist, doubts about the goodness of the new U.S. history curriculum are “claptrap.” New York magazine said a committee vote in Oklahoma’s legislature to defund AP history teaching sounded like something from “The Colbert Report.”

Up to now, the College Board itself has said nothing publicly. Asked Wednesday about the dispute, the board emailed this statement: “The AP U.S. History Course and Exam Development Committee is now reviewing the thoughtful feedback it received, and later this summer we will announce a new edition of the AP U.S. History course framework. This new edition will clarify and encourage a balanced approach to the teaching of American history, while remaining faithful to the requirements that colleges and universities set for academic credit.” In short, wait for our revision of the revision.

That said, the board’s website includes statements of support, not least from the 14,000-member American Historical Association, whose members’ advocacy is presumably based on a reading of the existing text of the curriculum. Nothing would more benefit this controversy than if every parent, high-school student and state legislator in the U.S. did indeed read through all 130 pages of the proposed framework for AP U.S. History. The link is here on the College Board’s website: Click on the .pdf download titled “AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description.”

The AP history framework is organized into concepts, codings and even Roman numerals. They explain:

“This coding helps teachers make thematic connections across the chronology of the concept outline. The codes are as follows: ID—Identity; WXT—Work, exchange, and technology; PEO—Peopling; POL—Politics and power; WOR—America in the world; ENV—Environment and geography—physical and human; CUL—Ideas, beliefs, and culture.”

An example: “Native peoples and Africans in the Americas strove to maintain their political and cultural autonomy in the face of European challenges to their independence and core beliefs. (ID-4) (POL-1) (CUL-1) (ENV-2).”

Or: “Explain how arguments about market capitalism, the growth of corporate power, and government policies influenced economic policies from the late 18th century through the early 20th century. 3.2.II, 4.2.II, 5.1.II, 6.1.I, 6.1.II, 7.1.II, 7.2.II.”

And inevitably: “Students should be able to explain how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history, with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities. Students should be able to explain how these subidentities have interacted with each other and with larger conceptions of American national identity.”

Let’s cut to the chase. The notion that this revision, in the works for seven years, is just disinterested pedagogy is, well, claptrap. In the 1980s, Lynne Cheney, as chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, threw down the gauntlet over the leftward, even Marxist, class-obsessed drift of American historiography. She lost.



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