Opinion: If AP U.S. History is wrong, it shouldn’t go right

Donald Earl Collins is a history associate professor at University of Maryland University College and a freelance writer. He worked with college access initiatives at FHI 360 in New York from 2004 to 2008.

In this essay, he takes on the controversy over revisions to AP U.S. History by the College Board. Earlier this year, the controversy erupted in Georgia. There was an unsuccessful attempt in the Georgia Legislature to outlaw the course if the College Board did not revamp it to reflect a more positive view of America’s past.

By Donald Earl Collins

What is the Advanced Placement United States History course and exam really? It’s a College Board course designed for high school students, a facsimile of what it would be like to take U.S. history as a college freshman or sophomore in an introductory course.

Coupled with the AP U.S History exam, the 500,000 or so students who take this course in 10th or 11th grade can obtain credits for their future college transcripts while still in high school by doing well on the multiple choice and essay portions of the exam. That’s it.

It’s not a course in American civics or patriotism or even American mythology. Nor is it a course on the struggles of the American left, oppression studies or diversity. It is a middle-of-the-road course, academically and politically, so much so that we should see any perceived controversy among American conservatives as ludicrous.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The real problem with the framework isn’t that it’s too liberal. Nor is the issue about it not talking about the Founding Fathers or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. enough. If anything, the problem is it remains too centrist, it takes too few risks and challenges too few assumptions about the making of the United States at all.

For nearly a year, the College Board’s revision of its AP US History curriculum framework and exam has faced attacks from American conservatives. Lynne Cheney, the wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has described the framework as something designed by “those on the left” and devoid of American “exceptionalism.”

The Oklahoma Legislature and 2016 presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson have essentially said the same things. There was a failed effort in the Georgia Legislature to compel the College Board to sanitize the framework.

The new framework will likely face more attacks even as hundreds of thousands of students take the AP test under this curriculum framework this month.

I doubt, though, that anyone who finds a specific question or an omission of a single individual from the curriculum framework offensive has actually read the 131-page document. Take the main framework statement for “Period 2: 1607-1754,” on page 36 of the AP US History Curriculum Framework. The statement reads, “Europeans and American Indians maneuvered and fought for dominance, control, and security in North America, and distinctive colonial and native societies emerged.”

This statement is insulting to American Indians on every level. They weren’t maneuvering and fighting for “dominance and control.” They were fighting to stay alive, to preserve some semblance of the ways in which they had lived prior to contact with the English and other Europeans.

And “distinctive colonial and native societies emerged?” Native societies were already distinctive. They found themselves in a consistently defensive posture, as their numbers dwindled from exposure to European diseases and constant warfare. But God forbid, we actually learn more about how every square mile of the US became the US.

One other quick example comes under “Period 4: 1800-1848.” Under “Key Concept 4.1” (p. 49), it reads, the “United States developed the world’s first modern mass democracy and celebrated a new national culture, while Americans sought to define the nation’s democratic ideals and to reform its institutions to match them.”

Despite the introduction of universal white male suffrage by the 1830s — meaning that white males over the age of 21 didn’t have to own property to vote — I would think white women, free blacks outside the South, enslaved Africans, and American Indians who had chosen to assimilate didn’t feel this “modern mass democracy” love. This key concept within the curriculum framework is so benign it’s as if politeness was more important than accuracy or truth in developing it.

The AP U.S History curriculum framework is riddled with this kind of language, as middle of the road as Times Square in Midtown Manhattan. To say any part of this framework is “liberal” says more about American conservatism and narcissism than it does about AP U.S History. It’s a rather weak curriculum framework revision, the kind of centrist work that’s about as controversial as water being wet.

I’m sure conservatives who’ve attacked the new framework like Lynne Cheney and Ben Carson didn’t read Key Concept 9.1 (p. 78), about “Period 9: 1980-Present.” It says, a “new conservatism grew to prominence in U.S. culture and politics, defending traditional social values and rejecting liberal views about the role of government.”

Apparently, this “key concept” should be extended to include the phrase “in order to win elections and keep ordinary Americans in the dark about their country’s history.”

Reader Comments 0

24 comments
BKendall
BKendall

@ Maureen -- Would like to know if Mr. Collins made suggestions to clarify the Key Concepts during the recent open window. 

I did send him a message asking the same question and it appears he read it.  Still waiting for answer I may never receive, but I am staying positive. Peace!


Carlos_Castillo
Carlos_Castillo

The following kind of statement ripples through the whole column:  "Despite the introduction of universal white male suffrage by the 1830s — meaning that white males over the age of 21 didn’t have to own property to vote — I would think white women, free blacks outside the South, enslaved Africans, and American Indians who had chosen to assimilate didn’t feel this “modern mass democracy” love."


It is, strictly speaking, true.  The problem with is, however, is that there were precious few other places in the 1830s with functioning democracies at all.   What was at the forefront of history is transformed into something shameful for use, now.  

The Whiggish,onward and upward, view of history is probably the one best suited to be the foundation of what a young student learns.  More critical and cynical points of view will be rammed into them at college with tools not allowed mention in a family newspaper.


Dr. Collins describes himself on Goodreads.com as "a freelance and academic writer who has written on the topics of multiculturalism, education reform and African American identity for more than fifteen years. I have published articles in Black Issues in Higher Education, Gannett Suburban Newspapers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, History of Education Quarterly, The Washington Post, Teachers College Record, Academe Magazine, Radical Society and the Journal of Hispanic Higher Education."


Personally, I think that he would benefit immensely by his relocating for the next decade to teach in Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, South Africa or Kenya.  This would move him for a while to a relevant place well outside the U.S. academic bubble where he could observe processes like economic development and urbanization that are taking place there at an accelerating pace, free from the personal baggage that he's lugging around here in the U.S.

AndujarCedeno
AndujarCedeno

The good professor is one of many with a history degree ignorant of his own subject. When he claims that Indians were fighting for survival from 1607-1754. He is stunningly ignorant of the largest Indian confederation in North America, the Iroquois. How does Donald characterize the Beaver Wars where the Iroquois expanded their domination from upstate New York as far west as Illinois while they destroyed Huronia and gained control of the entire Great Lakes region in order to gain control of the richest fur trade in North America. Read up on your history Donald. This was no fight for survival as you say. It was a cold-blooded conquest of other Native American peoples driven by the greed for power, money, and influence that drove Native Americans just like Europeans. The Iroquois played the game so well for so long that George Washington himself felt the need to subdue the tribes near the end of the American Revolution in 1780. The Iroquois call Washington the burner of towns and fields to this day. It sure doesn't sound like Dr. Collins poor, helpless Indians fighting just to stay alive. What a horrendous misrepresentation of the historical record. 

Then he claims "Native Americans were already distinctive. The changes in Native American society that took place after 1607 far outstrip any changes that archeologists uncover from the previous centuries. European diseases that wiped out 90% of the population of Indians and left their social networks shattered and their belief systems devastated forced Native American societies to rapidly change in an unprecedented manner to create unrecognizable new cultures. Ask the good professor to explain the Tuscarora peoples change from an Eastern Woodland society in the Carolinas to a member of the Iroquois Confederation in upstate New York, nothing new, unique and distinctive their Doc! 

Then he derides universal white male suffrage by comparing it to 20th century democracy instead of correctly comparing to anything else on the planet earth in the 1830's where there was no nation on the face of the earth that had as many voters in its system of government as the United States. Please tell me doctor where women voted in a democracy on the planet in 1830? 


No, Dr. Collins is like so many liberal professors ignorant of their own subject because they don't teach history. They teach an agenda driven look at the past meant to enforce an ideology, and he is so blinded by his ridicule of the Cheney's to even begin to understand his rose-colored version of the past has nothing to do with the facts. 

BearCasey
BearCasey

I taught A.P. U.S. History 1981-2006.  This essay is pretty much spot on.

DrProudBlackMan
DrProudBlackMan

@Lee_CPA2 


Telling that you compare a liberal black person with an avowed racist. Btw your American Renaissance, 'racialist'  site, posts are the garden variety 15 teeth southern bigot type. Keep up the good work!

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

@DrProudBlackMan


Let's see, an affirmative action hack who wrote drivel such as "Fear of a Black America", and who teaches propaganda studies (i.e. African American history) and views the conservative movement as a "culture war" on all things "multiculturalism" , but former Congressman David Duke is the avowed racist.


ROFLMAO Argosy....

GB101
GB101

Calling black slaves in 1830 "enslaved Africans" is like calling whites in 1830 "free Europeans."  Some slaves were Africans, surely, but most were descendants of Africans brought to the US many decades earlier.  The slave trade was outlawed in 1808.


For some reason writers feel the need to avoid plain language.  My son's history book avoided the use of "slaves."  Instead we got "enslaved African Americans."  Why use one syllable when nine will do the job.

Carlos_Castillo
Carlos_Castillo

@GB101 Slavery was expanding westward at that point to exploit the invention of cotton gin, making planters in places like Mississippi some of the richest people in the world.  The end of importation of slaves in 1808 just added value to the ones already here.  In places like Virginia, a huge number were "sold down the river," one family member at a time.


Chattel slavery or similar labor arrangements were probably more widespread in Africa, greater Arabia and south Asia around 1830 than we realize, but I wouldn't' seek to minimize how monstrous an offense that it was.  An entire ideology was contrived to justify it, by people who well knew that they ought not to be doing it.

living-in-outdated-ed
living-in-outdated-ed

I think we've beaten this topic to death. When you inject political agendas into the teaching of U.S. History, you run the risk of trying to reinvent our history as well as tread towards propaganda which is what Putin is doing to his people in Russia.


Let the historians build a curriculum that teaches all facets of our history through an objective lens, but for the far right to think that our country treated everyone equally and did not persecute other races, genders and creeds is just categorically false.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Hahaha. Those guys are funny frettin' over the phantom emotional damage caused to their precious AP test taking snow flakes. 


Could we please have as much concern for college tuition costs in GA rising  almost 100% in six years while the the minimum wage has stayed at 7.25 in GA for that same time? I made $8 per hour for summer jobs 35 years ago when tuition, room, and board were altogether, about $2,200 per year.


Your child will be hurt more by having to borrow $50K (Pay back $69K) than by that mean ol' APUSH course. Wake up middle class - they got you fussin' 'bout the skeeters in the air while the wolves are in your bank account.

Nondescript Name
Nondescript Name

I might not be an associate professor, nor is any claim universal, but as far as native cultures emerging after the arrival of Europeans--yes, it in fact happened, as the influence of trade goods and horses changed things from what they had been. Some groups rose in power, others declined. The Lakota/Sioux found an entirely new way of life on the Plains. 


As far as mass democracy--I will not fault the United States for not yet embracing what mankind as a whole did not embrace and never had even remotely contemplated doing so; I praise it for embracing what the rest of mankind did not but had contemplated. If the good professor does not find his American history sufficiently triumphal, I do. He sees a gap of a few decades before the sphere of liberty expanded to cover yet another piece of new ground; I see millennia where the sphere never existed at all.  

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@PSWallace


You have given some thoughtful and interesting points.


I would venture to state, however, that the creation of a functioning democratic-republic has been an evolution over time, starting as far back as the signing of the Magna Carta, about a millennium ago. The United States is still a work in progress toward forming the "more perfect union" envisioned by our Founding Fathers.  If we keep the course in America, without corrupting our original ideals of freedom and egalitarianism, hopefully this nation will be an instrument for helping to form a "more perfect world" based on those same ideals. 

duke14
duke14

I am reading "A History of the American People", by Paul Johnson. He says that the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, ratified in 1639, was the first written constitution not only in America but in the world. A written constitution leads people to think in terms of absolute principles. As the constitution is amended and enlarged, it serves as a signpost to independence and freedom. When the APUSH standards talk about how women, blacks, Indians, etc. did not enjoy the blessings of this freedom, but do not emphasize how the American system set the world on the road towards freedom, then those standards guarantee that those disenfranchise groups will never enjoy those benefits.

The old APUSH standards consisted of five pages of general guidelines for a flexible history curriculum. The new APUSH is 70 pages of detailed standards.

I doubt that liberal defenders of APUSH have even read the conservative criticism. As one small sample, consider Lynne Cheney's essay in the Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2015. It can be accessed at the following link: 

http://www.wsj.com/articles/lynne-cheney-the-end-of-history-part-ii-1427929675?KEYWORDS=lynne+cheney

Begin quote:

The End of History, Part II: The new Advanced Placement U.S. history exam focuses on oppression, group identity and Reagan the warmonger.

If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

—President Ronald Reagan, speech at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1987

President Reagan’s challenge to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev remains one of the most dramatic calls for freedom in our time. Thus I was heartened to find a passage from Reagan’s speech on the sample of the new Advanced Placement U.S. history exam that students will take for the first time in May. It seemed for a moment that students would be encouraged to learn about positive aspects of our past rather than be directed to focus on the negative, as happens all too often.

But when I looked closer to see the purpose for which the quotation was used, I found that it is held up as an example of “increased assertiveness and bellicosity” on the part of the U.S. in the 1980s. That’s the answer to a multiple-choice question about what Reagan’s speech reflects.

No notice is taken of the connection the president made between freedom and human flourishing, no attention to the fact that within 2½ years of the speech, people were chipping off pieces of the Berlin Wall as souvenirs. Instead of acknowledging important ideas and historical context, test makers have reduced President Reagan’s most eloquent moment to warmongering.

The AP U.S. history exam matters. Half a million of the nation’s best and brightest high-school students will take it this year, hoping to use it to earn college credit and to polish their applications to competitive colleges. To score well on the exam, students have to learn what the College Board, a private organization that creates the exam, wants them to know.

No one worried much about the College Board having this de facto power over curriculum until that organization released a detailed framework—for courses beginning last year—on which the Advanced Placement tests on U.S. history will be based from 2015 onward. When educators, academics and other concerned citizens realized how many notable figures were missing and how negative was the view of American history presented, they spoke out forcefully. The response of the College Board was to release the sample exam that features Ronald Reagan as a warmonger.

It doesn’t stop there. On the multiple-choice part of the sample exam, there are 18 sections, and eight of them take up the oppression of women, blacks and immigrants. Knowing about the experiences of these groups is important—but truth requires that accomplishment be recognized as well as oppression, and the exam doesn’t have questions on subjects such as the transforming leadership of Martin Luther King Jr.

                             [ ...]

Aside from a section about mobilizing women to serve in the workforce, the sample exam has nothing to say about World War II, the conflict in which the U.S. liberated millions of people and ended one of the most evil regimes in the history of the world. The heroic acts of the men who landed on Omaha Beach and lifted the flag on Iwo Jima are ignored. The wartime experiences that the new framework prefers are those raising “questions about American values,” such as “the internment of Japanese Americans, challenges to civil liberties, debates over race and segregation, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb.”

                                    [...]

Some 20 years ago, as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I made a grant to a group to create voluntary standards for U.S. history. When the project was finished, I had standards on my hands that were overwhelmingly negative about the American story, so biased that I felt obliged to condemn them in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal called “The End of History.”

I learned an important lesson, one worth repeating today. The curriculum shouldn’t be farmed out, not to the federal government and not to private groups. It should stay in the hands of the people who are constitutionally responsible for it: the citizens of each state.

End quote.

Intteach
Intteach

@duke14 You really believe that Reagan inspired the East Germans with his speech to start a peaceful revolution? I believe that they were more concerned with their daily struggles, they wanted freedom to travel - they did not even necessarily want a unified Germany. They were more concerned whether Gorbachev would counter the demonstrations violently like the Soviets had done in 1953. In Leipzig, where most of the Monday demonstrations started, they could not even receive West TV! Reagan had - if at all - a minimal impact on the East-Germans who finally brought down the wall.

bu2
bu2

@Intteach @duke14 

Well maybe he inspired the Hungarians.  It was their open borders to East Germany and the west that forced the hands of the communists.


And it was inspiring to Americans.  That a 40 year old cold war that had us huddling under our desks in fallout drills as children might soon be over.  Younger people can't understand a world where many expected a nuclear war that would kill 10s or hundreds of millions and possibly destroy all life on the planet.  A world where you had to plan where to meet if you had to abandon the city suddenly and couldn't leave with your family.  So it was inspiring to hear him ask Mr. Gorbachev to tear down that wall.  And even more thrilling a couple years later when it did come down.

Chi Ali
Chi Ali

Hey guys sorry but we all have to face out shite, they termed it white mans burden for a reason, I would just be happy that the country is growing, but what a lot of your forefathers did ..you should feel bad that's a f'd up family tree, yet and still the only thing you can do is move forward and be truthfull, American History is just as diverse as AMerica filed with triumphs and lowlights, Guys like Cheany want to foster this cold war mentality waving the foam finger "USA #1" when they do everything to undermine American dominance. 

straker
straker

This essay sounds like a call for all us Whites to engage in hand-wringing and soul searching guilt.

bitcoin
bitcoin

The fact that none of the opposition you're seeing in partisan newspapers like the AJC is coming from the political left—is proof enough that the AP U.S. History curriculum is liberal. 

Its most strenuous defense comes from liberals like Collins and liberal columns like Get Schooled.

sssinff
sssinff

@bitcoin


Have you taken, or perhaps taught AP U.S. history? Or just making an opinion based on your antipathy for liberals?


midwaycva41
midwaycva41

But, as suggested by the professor, before you rip the AP History exam (which lets students earn college credits), have you actually read the whole document?

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

"It’s not a course in American civics or patriotism or even American mythology. Nor is it a course on the struggles of the American left, oppression studies or diversity. It is a middle-of-the-road course, academically and politically, so much so that we should see any perceived controversy among American conservatives as ludicrous."

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Heaven forbid that we should allow for questioning in educating our young - regarding America's history or regarding anything else. Misguided thinking.


The purpose of "education" is to "lead out"  (ex + duc) from the student thinking that is not necessarily programmed thought.  On the other hand, "indoctrination," in contrast with education, is the "laying on" to others of given truths, without their being able to question those professed truths.