What both conservatives and liberals are missing in the fight over the new AP U.S. History standards

tags: APUSH

Nicholas M. Gallagher is staff writer at The American Interest and research associate to Walter Russell Mead.

Afresh battle in the history wars is brewing over the recently-revised AP U.S. History exam course framework, which goes into effect this fall. Opening salvos came from the right, prominently from Stanley Kutz at National Review and Paul Mirgenoff of Powerline, who charged that the reformed course reflected a left-wing bias. Not so, shot back Michael Hiltzik in the LA Times—if anything, lefties would say the new revisions don’t go far enough, as Jamelle Bouie pointed out in Slate.

Each side has been backed by heavy artillery — Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars and Ron Radosh, versus James Grossman of the American History Association. Judging by the increasingly acrimonious tone, a number of American scholars are working themselves up to re-enact the last meeting between Hamilton and Burr.

As someone who has spent several years tutoring high school students who are actually prepping for the AP history test, and who still works with students when the editorial hounds of The American Interest aren’t baying at my heels for more posts, I believe that both sides are missing the point. The new revisions aren’t objectionable because the history they teach is left-wing. They’re objectionable because they don’t teach much history at all, good or bad. For all its faults—and the old system had its share—the old framework grounded students in the basic knowledge they need to take on more advanced and complex historical topics. The new framework guts one of the last solid survey courses in the liberal arts and replaces it with an airy-fairy mix of vapid “themes” and “topics” that will leave most students bored, confused, and completely unprepared for further college study in history.

The old, unreformed AP U.S. History Exam is valuable because it creates the incentives for a rigorous, one-year survey course in American history. The period—from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to the present, plus our Native American, British, and Spanish backgrounds—works really well as a one-year course. While high school students can’t be expected to acquire a deep understanding of American history, it is well within the abilities of reasonably bright, motivated students to master a solid command of the basic facts of American history in a single year. That’s a good thing, and it means that when students get to college they will have a useful background for more specialized and demanding courses in American history, literature, and politics.

In AP U.S. history (or APUSH as high schoolers often call it), students have to comprehend and synthesize a large volume of information. Often this is the first time they have done so in a liberal arts setting: without the rigid formulae of the sciences, bound by distinct facts, but not subject to uniform conclusions. Some vital academic skills can only be learned through processing a large, diverse amount of advanced concepts. Differentiating between the facts that best bolster your case and those that are extraneous, learning to identify important patterns in complicated and sometimes contradictory streams of data, even simply comprehending and synthesizing a firehose of information—these are essential skills in college, and they can only really be learned through survey courses.

Secondly, a thorough knowledge of American history is necessary preparation for a wide range of college courses, from economics to African-American studies. With the increasing rarity of college American history survey courses (and general education requirements as a whole), most universities are implicitly relying on high schools to cover this information, as well they should. There has to be a place in American education where students get a basic grounding in facts, and as much of that grounding as possible needs to take place in the pre-college years. We don’t need more K-12 courses on “theories of orthography” and “alternative grammars,” but at some point the little darlings do need to learn some spelling and grammar.

Finally, the U.S. history course fills an important civic role: as citizens, we must have a good grip on where we are coming from to understand where we are going. With about 400,000 students taking the APUSH exam every year (roughly one-fifth of all college-bound students in America), this curriculum is the closest thing we have to a nation-wide program to ground future leaders in American history. Few other single courses matter as much for the future of American democracy.

The old AP test ensured that teachers could teach U.S. history in any manner they wanted (that their schools and local communities would tolerate)—Marxist, Reaganite, libertarian anarchist, whatever. It only mattered that they taught it all, because at the end of the year their students would be tested on knowledge of a wide spectrum of facts. ...

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