Changes to AP U.S. History

The College Board recently unveiled a framework for its Advanced Placement (AP) United States History exam that encourages the politicization of American History.  The College Board claims that the extensive guide will be just one of many tools in the hands of teachers, who use the company’s content guides to prepare students to pass the AP U.S. History exam.  In reality, it stifles freedom of thought and prevents students from examining history from a variety of perspectives. 

The new framework sidesteps important American founders like James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson and excludes crucial primary source documents like The Federalist. At the same time, it pays “special attention” to the concepts of “gender, class, racial, and ethnic” identity in American history.  Everyone should support students learning about the entirety of American history and the various identities involved.  However, teachers should also be concerned that selective emphasis on topics of current ideological interest necessarily redefines how students study the past.       

In late September, three members of the five member Jefferson County, Colorado Board of Education (JeffCo) responded with changes of their own.  They proposed changes to the AP U.S. History curriculum that would bolster classroom discussion that “promote[s] citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.” The proposal also “advises against materials that encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”  Teachers and high school students proceeded to walk out of class in protest, with many students claiming to have been censored.  

One student protestor told reporters “the school was going to change the whole [AP US History] curriculum.” Another alleged that JeffCo had eliminated Thomas Jefferson from the curriculum, a change actually instituted by the College Board.  Lost upon many outside observers was the fact that many teachers walked out due to dissatisfaction with newly implemented pension programs.  An education policy analyst earlier this summer had called JeffCo “one of three school districts where union locals are in crisis” over pensions.    

Both JeffCo, and the College Board claim to be teaching history as it should be taught.  JeffCo’s intention to “censor” civil disorder probably went too far.  The JeffCo proposal asked whether or not “materials that may encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife, or disregard of the law [depict this] within the context of the U.S. Constitution.” This proposal is not an attempt to cover up information, but rather an attempt to ensure that civil disobedience is venerated only where it contributed to the eventual formation of legal obedience and is discussed in proper context.  Students are justified in warding off what might seem like attempts to feed them propaganda.  Regardless, it is clear that a politically motivated testing agency and an ongoing pension war—not curriculum changes—partially explain the students’ and teachers’ angst.        

For years, The College Board has been tasked with managing the interpretation of U.S. history for the most talented high school students. Its testing monopoly has survived, as Stanly Kurtz of The National Review has said, because of “public trust” in its ability to remain impartial.  By politicizing history, the College Board has violated that trust, and should be replaced or otherwise modified to allow more balanced historical perspectives to flourish.