Examining the new AP US History standards

Last year, the standards published for the AP US History program aroused ire from people who believe they did not sufficiently flatter students, inculcate patriotism, and introduced them to notions that American history involved at least as much conflict between groups as it did consensus. These standards threatened to teach history, a discipline that does not propose to make one feel good. Proposals to review or ban the program in turn drew protests from students in Denver. States considered dropping the program entirely. The Republican National Committee declared the standards

a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects

The RNC went on to complain that the standards left out various named individuals and did include

a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history, including the motivations and actions of 17th -19th -century settlers, American involvement in World War II, and the development of and victory in the Cold War

With states threatening the College Board’s profits, the non-profit made the business decision one would expect and produced standards (PDF) more in line with the whitewashing that the RNC, et al, demanded. I could write another post about how we should not look to history with the expectation that it will make us feel good or the costs of doing so to our understanding of the past. Those who demand feel-good national myths rarely concern themselves with such trifles as all that, especially when the costs fall on those they dislike.

I’ve written that post already, so instead I dug up the standards to compare the two. I can’t say that I’ve undertaken a thorough examination of the hundred-plus pages of each, but I dug into the specific content material as that appears to have caused the most controversy and I feel most competent to comment upon it.

In discussing the three-sided contact between European explorers and imperialists, African slaves, and Native Americans, the 2014 standards require students to learn that

Many Europeans developed a belief in white superiority to justify their subjugation of Africans and American Indians, using several different rationales 

From a strictly historical perspective, I don’t see anything at all objectionable about this statement. Europeans developed a belief in white superiority. They subjugated, however imperfectly and often with far more difficulty than traditional accounts admit, Africans and Indians. The College Board gave a direct, clear, precise standard for AP teachers to use.

The equivalent section of the 2015 standards runs in this vein:

Extended contact with Native Americans and Africans fostered a debate among European religious and political leaders about how non-Europeans should be treated, as well as evolving religious, cultural, and racial justifications for the subjugation of Africans and Native Americans.

One comes away with the impression that this debate never reached any clear conclusion. From this a student could take gather that white supremacy, while present, did not form a decisive influence. A competent, well-informed teacher would, of course, expand on standards. A standard can only express a generality, not replace the person at the front of the room. But the expansion demanded by the new standard would involve essentially restating the 2014 standard. How would this constitute an improvement?

By hiding white supremacy under the vagueness of “racial justifications” the College Board only makes it easier to miss and at least implies to teachers that their students do not really need to know it. “Racial justifications” could mean anything, up to and including the exact things that proslavery. The new standards replace precision and clarity with a generality apparently designed to conceal what it should instead reveal. Call me eccentric, but I think students would benefit immensely from hearing the words “white supremacy” in a history class instead of “racial justifications”.

From 2014:

The abundance of land, a shortage of indentured servants, the lack of an effective means to enslave native peoples, and the growing European demand for colonial goods led to the emergence of the Atlantic slave trade.

Reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority, the British system enslaved black people in perpetuity, altered African gender and kinship relationships in the colonies, and was one factor that led the British colonists into violent confrontations with native peoples.

And 2015:

As chattel slavery became the dominant labor system in many southern colonies, new laws created a strict racial system that prohibited interracial relationships and defined the descendants of African American mothers as black and enslaved in perpetuity.

The 2015 standard has one thing to recommend for it: it tells exactly how slavery operated. But this hardly redeems the rest of the sentence. Neither standard would win prizes for directness. The “British system” did not enslave anybody; British people did that. The new standard, however, hides the actors and obscure their reasons. Slavery “became the dominant labor system” and “new laws created a strict racial system”. These things apparently just happen. New laws come to us like the wind and rain. Labor systems thrive or fail like the tides. Far be it for us to imagine that people chose to enact and enforce new laws or preferred one system of labor over another.

Here we have 2014 again:


By supplying American Indian allies with deadlier weapons and alcohol and by rewarding Indian military actions, Europeans helped increase the intensity and destructiveness of American Indian warfare.


Interactions between European rivals and American Indian populations fostered both accommodation and conflict. French, Dutch, British, and Spanish colonies allied with and armed American Indian groups, who frequently sought alliances with Europeans against other Indian groups.

Looking closely, one can see the same content. However, the new standard makes it sound much more like the Indians brought conflict upon themselves. Reference to increasing conflict, to say nothing of its intensity and destructiveness, ends up buried under reference to accommodation. One doesn’t write like this when one can help it; the College Board could do so as recently as last year.

The presence of slavery and the impact of colonial wars stimulated the growth of ideas on race in this Atlantic system, leading to the emergence of racial stereotyping and the development of strict racial categories among British colonists, which contrasted with Spanish and French acceptance of racial gradations.

Perhaps I missed it, but I find no equivalent of this statement in the 2015 standards.

In 2014, the College Board said:

Many white Americans in the South asserted their regional identity through pride in the institution of slavery, insisting that the federal government should defend that institution

In 2015?

Regional interests often trumped national concerns as the basis for many political leaders’ positions on slavery and economic policy.

They must have hired a fair number of Futurama fans at the College Board in the past year, as they clearly see technical correctness as the best sort. We lost reference to regional identity, substituting instead “interests”. One could take a position on slavery as an expression of regional interest, but it seems we must think it one of many rather than the defining regional interest of the white South. By writing the South out of the standard, the Board obscures both the most powerful regionalism in the land and sweeps the cause for it under the carpet. Furthermore, the new standard reads like an implicit indictment of anybody who got excited about slavery, for or against.

In 2014, students should have learned

Resistance to initiatives for democracy and inclusion included proslavery arguments, rising xenophobia, antiblack sentiments in political and popular culture, and restrictive anti-Indian policies

In 2015, they should instead learn nothing of this. I found no reference to rising xenophobia, anti-Indian policy, or racism appears in the section on how the nation struggled to practice the ideals it preached.

Moving on to economics, the 2014 standards require students learn that

Southern cotton furnished the raw material for manufacturing in the Northeast, while the growth in cotton production and trade promoted the development of national economic ties, shaped the international economy, and fueled the internal slave trade

But this year:

Increasing Southern cotton production and the related growth of Northern manufacturing, banking, and shipping industries promoted the development of national and international commercial ties.

It would not do to mention the workers in a discussion of economic development. The new section on regional economic development, despite emphasizing distinctiveness of the regions, writes the slaves out. Mighty white of them.

I could probably go in this vein at still more tedious length. The new standards technically include much of the relevant and supposedly “divisive” material in the old. I found a few isolated places where the 2015 standards did a better job, most conspicuously where they improved on 2014 in characterizing Southern resistance to Reconstruction as violence, but overall the College Board did a much better job last year.

In the new standards, the authors obscure the much of the content. This serves teachers and students alike very poorly. If the exams will still expect the same degree of mastery, then teachers don’t know it from the new standards and so can’t prepare students as well as they with the old. If the exams expect less, or themselves talk in bowdlerizing circumlocutions, then students remain poorly served. Universities will, and ought to, expect much more of them. Given that the AP program justifies itself and the College Board’s status as a non-profit as a preparatory endeavor, this should have settled things decisively in favor of 2014-style standards.

A good teacher can and will do better than this. Every standard must include some degree of generality and none can replace the person in front of the kids. In theory, the more general standards could open up flexibility for the best-equipped teachers. We don’t have quite the dearth of excellent instructors that some would have you believe. However, not every class or every district ends up with the best teachers in the best places doing the best they can. Exceptional individuals get that way by exceeding norms, not conforming to them. Thus we have standards to begin with, rather than simply trust the judgment of every teacher absolutely. They establish, at the very least, a common baseline below which instruction should not sink. In putting dollars before students, the College Board has measurably lowered that floor this year.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

The end of the world has not come. People all around the world believe comforting lies instead of hard truths about their national pasts. No set of standards will change that. But good historical education should play its part in fighting against that tendency. It should challenge and engage with all the energy that the past has to offer. It should draw attention to nuance and complexity, the animating passions past and present. It should help children become adults who can imagine themselves in different stations, understand the perspectives of others, and recognize both welcome change and horrifying persistence in life. If they, and the adults intervening on their theoretical behalf, want instead to just feel good about themselves then they might find that in any number of endeavors. Should loved ones, hobbies, and the myriad species of entertainment available to us do not themselves satisfy on that front, then I don’t know how history could even if we accepted that it should.

But having gone this far, we should ask what the insistence that history should make us feel good suggests. We all know that history comes oversupplied with things we’d rather not have around. I’d rather live in a world that never heard of slavery, genocide, all the injustices and all the Hitlers and Calhouns who happily practiced, endorsed, and defended the lot. I suspect that some of the College Board’s critics would like the same. The inevitable collision between empathy and atrocity takes its toll, even for those of us spared by long decades, skin color, and other unearned advantages from the pain of dismembered families, broken bodies, and stolen lives. Our ancestors did not leave us a world where these things just didn’t happen. Pretending to such a past, or that all the things we’d rather not have to know about constitute odd quirks safely consigned to the past serves none of us who condemn them. Rather facilitating ignorance abets those who look at past horrors and see in them something to resurrect.

For more than we’d probably like to think, I suspect the “only the good parts” version of history has that as an intended feature rather than an unfortunate consequence. How else could they call discussion slavery and white supremacy “divisive”? What about them divides people today? To have division, we must have at least two parties deeply committed to irreconcilable positions. If these issues do divide, they only separate people who support, defend, and excuse all the beatings, rape, mutilations, and theft from those who do not. We all have our crosses to bear, but we have the great luxury at this remove to easily choose division from proslavery Americans. Even with that light a burden, some of us can’t go so far.

Like so many things, that speaks volumes about us all, the culture we inherited, and the one we continue to make.




2 comments on “Examining the new AP US History standards

  1. Jimmy Dick says:

    It will always come down to the teacher as to what the students actually learn. I am disappointed that the College Board caved in to the demands of the people who put beliefs before facts, but I am not surprised. What is most important is that they did not change the pedagogical model for teaching the course or assessing it. That is where the root of the problem is actually at.

    Insider Test Prep is a company that puts out guides for students to buy to prepare for the AP exams. Larry Krieger is an owner and guide creator of this company. He put together the US History guide for the test that Insider Test Prep sells. His guide is useless with the new pedagogy which shifted from fact memorization to fact analysis. He is the person that started the rightwing whining about the course.

    Larry stands to lose a large chunk of money with the new test. So in the end this really comes back to money. The RNC and culture warriors jumped on the course, but they didn’t look at the pedagogy, only the content. It didn’t suit their version of patriotism which involved blind ignorance of facts. The teachers will take care of that problem. American Exceptionalism is dead. Only the ignorant think it should be taught in schools.

    The funniest part of all of this is that when the rightwing talks about indoctrination they are ignoring the fact that the course is about providing students with facts and letting them make their interpretations based on those facts. That is not indoctrination. That is developing critical thinking skills that let students learn for themselves. Indoctrination is making students memorize information that you think they should learn.

    Good history teachers provide the primary sources to their students so they can see just where the facts come from. The rightwing is notably shy when it comes to dealing with primary sources. They have a tendency to avoid them because the facts do not support the current conservative ideology. That is really what the RNC was whining about. How dare somebody contradict the beliefs of the conservatives using facts? That is obviously an unamerican thing to do according to them.

    Guess what? I don’t teach American Exceptionalism. I also explain quite clearly to my students that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. To do that, I give my students the documents and let them figure it out. Every time they come to the conclusion that it was slavery. Amazing what happens when you use primary sources!

    • I wish I’d had you as my APUSH teacher. The guy I got wasn’t awful, but also didn’t really step up his game. It came off like a second rendition of US History rather than something more demanding. I don’t remember many primary source documents treated at any length except in the context of Document-Based Question prep and, I think, an I Love Lucy script. I learned most of my history skills in English classes.

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