The AP US History Wars: Is a Peace Process Possible?

Historians in the News
tags: APUSH



Jonathan Burack is a former teacher who has been producing history curriculum materials for K–12 schools for more than 30 years.

The History Wars are back. At issue is the new framework for the Advanced Placement US history program. One recent skirmish pitted conservatives on the Jefferson County, Colorado, school board against a vocal group of teachers and students in their school district. If the heated rhetoric is typical of what is to come, we are in for a lot more fireworks that will be of little value to teachers, students, the public, or the Advanced Placement program itself.

This is sad, because valid criticisms of the new AP framework do exist. The danger is that they will be drowned out by ignorant ranting versus defensive indignation. Conservatives see the new framework as an ideologically driven left-wing assault on any notion of American exceptionalism. The framework’s defenders depict critics as ignorant right-wingers calling for patriotic storytelling and consensus history. In response, the AP program may feel smugly content to dig in its heels and ignore the real problems it needs to confront.


At issue is the framework’s Concept Outline, which spells out concepts and trends AP teachers are expected to cover. It replaces a shorter AP chronological listing of events with a longer outline describing broad trends and patterns. Factual details are left to teachers to supply. Will this promote more in-depth learning, or does it subtly shoehorn ideological bias into the curriculum? That’s the question at the heart of this debate. While many attacks from the right have been exaggerated, legitimate problems with bias in the framework do exist. The AP program would be wise to address them—and in doing so, it could well improve its guidelines substantially.

Stanley Kurtz is one conservative critic whose views are quite ominous in tone. At first, Kurtz focused on the backgrounds and political leanings of the AP framework’s creators, accusing them of internationalizing US history in order to weaken any sense of American identity and loyalty (bit.ly/13pnZyH). Later he made broad charges about the framework itself, claiming it would straitjacket teachers, rendering them no longer “free to present US history from a variety of perspectives” (bit.ly/1vpzeh0).

Aside from exaggerating the framework’s likely impact, this attack fails to recognize its admirable promotion of historical thinking skills—the discussing and weighing of alternate interpretations of the past, investigating sources through close reading, contextualizing sources, analyzing source reliability, and corroborating sources. The framework stresses these heavily, though not in the outline Kurtz dwells on...




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