Blogs > Liberty and Power > APUSH: A Tempest in a Teapot

Dec 27, 2014

APUSH: A Tempest in a Teapot

tags: APUSH

I have read the APUSH document. Frankly, it is not as bad as I thought it might be - certainly far short of the hard-core agenda pushed by the multiculturalist authors of the National History Standards in the 1990s. Yes, APUSH has a "progressive" slant but not as much as some college textbooks. Furthermore, it leaves ample room for AP faculty to pick a college textbook (presumably of their own choosing) and work within the APUSH framework. If I were a contrarian high school teacher teaching AP under the APUSH guidelines, I would roll my eyes at the examples of bias cited by critics but could easily work with it. 

Criticism of APUSH ranges from it is a "stealth agenda perpetrated by those who failed with the National History Standards” (Peter Wood) to “AP is bad in and of itself” (a sentiment K.C. Johnson seems to embrace in rejecting the entire AP enterprise). I agree with much that Johnson has to say but AP isn’t going away. ‘Tis far better to “light a candle than curse the darkness" by offering workshops on teaching "traditional" history the way critics believe it ought to be taught.

Preliminary observations on some of the criticisms I have read:

Pre-British America

Critics of the early periodization (1491-1607) are stretching to complain about going backward in time. So? Many of us do—and, I would argue, must—discuss the background of transatlantic and early European ventures into the New World. The same holds for understanding the Anglo roots of British North America. “The past is never dead. It's not even past,” Faulkner famously wrote. This was true of those 17th century Americans we introduce students to in our freshmen college courses. In short, devoting 5% to an era that was profoundly important to American and world history is reasonable.

Content! The damn content!

The major objection of critics is the lack of focus on content. In a way, this is a good thing (because one can only imagine what content might be imposed upon students!). But, if there is a college textbook and AP teachers use it to gather illustrative examples for the areas covered by AP course framework, isn't there the same content? As K.C. Johnson notes, high school teachers don’t deviate from state guidelines, which are much more traditional in conveying content even if APUSH wants them to also impart critical thinking skills (not a bad thing, in my mind).

At any rate, AP instructors seem to have a choice of college textbooks. It is this aspect of the AP framework that makes it much better than so many other top-down educational initiatives. 

Too much social history at expense of “traditional” fields

Yes, APUSH emphasizes social history but there is more than enough political history, particularly in this day and age when it could be much worse (and is at the college-level). There is the Monroe Doctrine, treaties, international incidents and the like. That said, the weakest part seems to be military history. It would be useful to get a military historian to criticize this gaping hole in AP and college textbooks. War and the military's role between roles shaped many aspects of our history. The same is true of all cultures. 

Why not criticize?

Perhaps it is the holiday season that lightens my mood about APUSH but, truthfully, I drafted my thoughts months ago. Can I find fault with some of the examples? Absolutely! In the earliest period (1491-1607), there is not much awareness of work critical of American Indians—for example, Keeley’s War before Civilization (anthropological) or James Axtell's balanced approach (Beyond 1492). On other hand, there are references to the Indians using Europeans for their own purposes.

I don't disagree with any of the groaners cited by critics (and I could add some of my own) but they don't overwhelm the APUSH document. I say this as a strong critic of the way history is taught at the college survey level. This is tame stuff, and I do like that they are not prescribing how it will be taught. 

What, Me Think? (Apologies to Alfred E. Neuman)

Adding historical thinking skills by analyzing documents is fine by me. Too many high school students get turned off by history as "one damn thing after another." We must have content but get the AP students (at least) to understand that it is a process of thinking. This is no different than having students analyze English literature sources, etc. 

As for the push to get the unqualified to take AP, I entirely agree. I am not sure what to do about that except to say that it isn't helping those who sign up and then fail the AP exam. It means they have to take a college course, which critics seem to want anyway.

I thought I would hate APUSH more than I did after reading it. It is mostly the warmed-over progressive interpretation of history that has dominated high school and college-level textbooks since the Progressive era! (Yes, historical textbooks have been biased for a LONG, LONG time!). APUSH mixes in more race and identity but, by and large, this is tame stuff. I would teach the subject matter from a different perspective—and I would have the freedom to do so under APUSH. 

The brouhaha over APUSH is a tempest in a teapot. There is no substantial (or even insubstantial) evidence that this is an effort "to impose college disciplinary fads on the course" (Johnson), much less a "Zinnification of American History" (Wood). Both critics read fine tea leaves to discern an ideological conspiracy that doesn't seem to have much empirical support. Thus, Wood falls back on "My guess is the College Board was aware of what happened in 1994 when the Gary Nash version of National History Standards was released and provoked immediate and harsh pushback. To avoid that, the College Board attempted a stealth rollout." (emphasis added). Similarly, K.C. Johnson concedes "there's scant evidence that APUSH sought to apply an ideological litmus test to the American past. . . . That said, it hardly seems unreasonable to observe that an effect, if not the intent, of the new curriculum will be to present a more left-leaning view of the American past." This is pure speculation unfounded in the way the decentralized AP is actually taught--something we never learn beyond ruminations that high school teachers will have Zinn-inspired history "imposed" on them.

As critical as I am of the way college history is taught (particularly the history of America), I'm unconvinced that this is anything more than a quixotic attempt to change the way college history is taught. Criticizing AP, however, doesn't get to the root of that real problem.


Jonathan Bean is Professor of History at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and also a research fellow at The Independent Institute.

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