Why the College Board’s New Standards Would Make Teaching History Even Worse

Since the 1960s, the academic history profession has changed markedly. Traditional fields such as military history, diplomatic history, intellectual history, religious history, and political history have been deemphasized, when not completely eliminated.

Whether in the typical college’s course offerings, on the typical academic conference’s panel program, in the books, articles, and talks they produce, or in the hiring of new colleagues, professors prefer to talk about “race, class, and gender.” That obsession now crowds out almost everything else in the field of history.

In general, the American past looks to such people like a lengthy symphony of class and racial/ethnic oppression with a leitmotif of sexism and occasional bows in the direction of contrary democratic or egalitarian principles. The only heroes of the story are the subject races, classes, and gender(s), besides the occasional critics of capitalism and Christianity, and anyone who can be cast as a spokesman for those who “should have been” aggrieved.

This is not a new development.

For example, when I took the first half of the two-semester survey in American history as an undergraduate at the University of Texas in the early 1980s, among the terms that never passed the professor’s lips were “Thomas Jefferson,” “Abraham Lincoln,” and “13th Amendment.” We did, however, spend several weeks hearing how the Salem Witchcraft Scare reflected oppression of women, blacks, and the poor in Puritan Massachusetts. One lecture was devoted to decrying the (then ongoing) Grenada invasion. The course was supposed to cover American history up to 1865.

Unfortunately, Americans generally pay little attention to these developments in the teaching of history. Few know that their young continue to be indoctrinated in hostility to America’s history, culture, and traditions.

One context in which trends in academic history seize center stage, however, is in discussion of school curricula. At present, that centers on the ongoing changes to high school Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) courses.

People are right to be skeptical of the new APUSH standards, promulgated by the College Board. They accelerate the trend toward making American history mainly about race, class, and gender grievances. Events are included only if they can be framed that way. 

Of the nine members of the AP U.S. History Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee, four are history professors. All of those professors of are social historians—that is, experts in some aspect of race, class, and gender. Their approach has become dominant in colleges, and the story they want the best and the brightest of today’s American high schoolers to learn in their APUSH classes is one in which America is nothing more than a place of oppression and persecution, with little to offer to the story of humanity. 

The Thematic Learning Objectives section states that APUSH courses will be organized under seven themes: “Identity; Work, exchange, and technology; Peopling; Politics and power; America in the world; Environment and geography—physical and human; [and] Ideas, beliefs, and culture.” All exam questions are to be based on “learning objectives” that are rooted in those themes.

What follow are scores of pages of references to various types of conflict among ethnic groups, among racial groups, between the “genders,” and between “capitalists” and “workers,” etc. The story is spun in the direction of white, male, capitalist, American, Christian guilt. Terminology familiar to readers of Marx or people who have listened to the typical Bernie Sanders speech pervades the entire account.

Thus, instead of noting that Americans or their English/British colonial forebears were/are amazingly wealthy and that improvements in living conditions pervade our society, one reads frequently of growing disparity of wealth. Instead of getting any sense that the legal framework of property rights and economic liberty helped most of the people improve their living standards, students repeatedly hear complaints about inequality.

As to Europeans’ interaction with Africans, one has no clue from these standards who sold the slaves to Europeans in the first place. It would not fit the narrative to state that slaves were captured and sold by other Africans. Instead, the standards vaguely say, “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.”

Turning to more recent history, the standard statist myths of the New Deal helping to end the Great Depression, the Supreme Court as partisan in striking down the first wave of New Deal legislation, various left-wing groups and developments as the only significant phenomena of the 1960s, and various avowed socialists and Communists as “reformers” are laid out in detail because they “fit” the project of promoting leftist tropes about our history.

“Capitalism” appears repeatedly and invariably with a negative connotation, but no one is ever called a “socialist.” Certainly the fact that economic freedom and American effort in tandem accounted for unprecedented prosperity has no place in the document.

Even in those portions of the document that touch on political events, materialist determinism is much in evidence. Thus, various inanimate factors repeatedly led to the development of parties and their policy choices; the significance of individual politicians is notably absent.

The glass is always half-empty, too. Rather than pointing to the historical novelty of republican government under written constitutions adopted by the people’s representatives and the fact that the principles underlying those innovations would lead to further gains for liberty, the standards say that “the new governments continued to limit rights to some groups.”

Why does all of this matter? 

First, these standards aim at monopolizing the history curriculum. “Beginning with the May 2015 AP U.S. History Exams, no AP U.S. History Exam questions will require students to know historical content that falls outside this content outline.” Since AP teachers commonly teach to the test, that means that their students will get more or less the slanted message the standards convey—and nothing else.

Second, it makes the job of the college history professor who isn’t a devotee of the “race/class/gender grievance” approach to American history harder if many of the sharpest students have already been indoctrinated with the opinions that the standards convey.

I recently signed a letter in common with dozens of other scholars of traditional U.S. history complaining that these standards will further weaken the already misleading way American students are taught.

In response to our criticisms, College Board President David Coleman has stated that the guidelines will be revised to bring them into line with the idea that, as he says, “history courses should foster a rich understanding of positive and inspiring events, individuals and ideas—and should resist a disproportionate focus on instances when Americans have failed to live up to the ideals on which our nation was founded.”

However, because the standards as they now stand would prompt teachers to structure their classes so differently from the way Mr. Coleman now says they ought to be structured, I am skeptical that the thorough revision his statement hints at will be undertaken. In order for that to happen, he would have to select a more diverse group of scholars, including at least some representatives of traditional fields of historical study, to serve on his drafting committee.

I am not sanguine about that possibility.