Revisiting History

New framework for AP U.S. history has more American exceptionalism and more on the Founding Fathers, responding to critics who said first version was too leftist.

July 31, 2015
 

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are in, Ronald Reagan is no longer “bellicose,” and the Gilded Age is a little shinier — at least as the far as the new Advanced Placement U.S. History Framework is concerned. In response to criticism that a previous framework portrayed American history in too negative a light, with too little emphasis on American exceptionalism, the College Board on Thursday released an amended framework for the AP U.S. History curriculum, or “APUSH.” And while some accused the board of “caving” to politically motivated critics, many historians said the framework is as good, if not better than the previous version.

“This is a highly flexible, more articulate guide to the kind of subjects that should be taught in a college-level U.S. history course, and each teacher chooses how that will be implemented,” said Jon Butler, the Howard R. Lamar Professor Emeritus of American Studies, History and Religious Studies at Yale University and president of the Organization of American Historians. “It’s not a rigid curriculum with specific interpretations of the American past.”

For decades, the APUSH framework was essentially a long list of names and concepts that teachers used to prepare their students for the APUSH exam for college credit. But many teachers complained that the framework didn’t offer enough guidance about what kinds questions in which contexts would appear on the test. So the College Board overhauled the framework in 2014, paring down the list of learning objectives but offering much more discussion, along with a new emphasis on critical and historical thinking skills.

That framework, which was in use last year, was met with near immediate criticism. Critics, including the Republican National Committee, deemed it unpatriotic with too little focus on great American leaders and contributions. For example, the committee said in a 2014 resolution, the framework offered "little or no discussion of the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history and many other critical topics that have always been part of the APUSH course.” They noted that the 2014 framework also left out "the U.S. military (no battles, commanders or heroes) and omits many other individuals and events that greatly shaped our nation’s history (for example, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Tuskegee Airmen, the Holocaust).”

Critics also noted the omission of the term “American exceptionalism," and accused the framework of focusing too much on identity politics. (A group of learning objectives in the 2014 framework, for example, were organized under the heading "identity." That's been changed to "American and national identity.")

Initially, the College Board called the criticism unwarranted, saying that just because a term wasn’t in the framework didn’t mean a teacher couldn’t teach it. But the College Board soon initiated a public review period and consulted various professional historians, including Butler. He said the 2015 framework released this week maintains the 2014 framework's focus on critical and historical thinking but is much more clearly worded. It also shed such “unfortunate” wording as “bellicose” in relation to President Reagan’s rhetoric about the Soviet Union, he said.

“That word rightfully attracted the attention of critics."

Jeremy Stern, an independent historian who also consulted the College Board during the revision period, said that while some of the early criticism of the framework was “excessive," the framework "did show political bias that concerned me.… I thought there were a number of places where it took a politically slanted tone and emphasized presentistic moral judgement.”

For example, he said, a discussion of settlers moving West focused on their impact on Native Americans, but not their complex motivations for becoming pioneers. And a discussion of industrialization didn’t emphasize the economic growth that came along with things such as urban poverty, he said. Those concepts have been fleshed out. Manifest destiny, for example, is no longer just a "belief in white racial superiority" but also in "economic opportunities and religious refuge."

In another example, critics said the 2014 framework's discussion of World War II was wrong to merely note that the conflict brought new opportunities for women and minorities and moral questions raised by the atomic bomb and Japanese internment. (It also notes that the Allied powers won, mainly due to their industrial superiority.)

The 2015 version still includes those concepts but now begins: "Americans viewed the [World War II] as a fight for the survival of freedom and democracy against fascist and militarist ideologies. This perspective was later reinforced by revelations about Japanese wartime atrocities, Nazi concentration camps, and the Holocaust.”

In the end, Stern said he thought the 2015 document was more complete than the 2014 version, and that the revision process wasn’t acrimonious. Rather, he said, it was “an extremely unusual case of a major education organization responding to criticism, when usually the response is to batten down the hatches and defend what’s done.”

The College Board said in a statement that the new edition was based on feedback gathered over the last year, including during the public review period, and that it includes “improvement to the language and structure of the course."

The statement continues: "Every statement in the 2015 edition has been examined with great care based on the historical record and the principled feedback the College Board received. The result is a clearer and more balanced approach to the teaching of American history that remains faithful to the requirements that colleges and universities set for academic credit. The new edition has been embraced by educators, including AP U.S. History teachers who reviewed it at the recent AP Annual Conference.”

It says the biggest changes relate to: 

  • American national identity and unity 
  • American ideals of liberty, citizenship, and self-governance, and how those ideals play out in U.S. history
  • American founding political leaders, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin
  • Founding Documents – including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers – as reflected in a new recommended focus section
  • Productive role of free enterprise, entrepreneurship, and innovation in shaping U.S. history
  • U.S. role in the victories of WWI and WWII, particularly the contributions and sacrifices of American servicemen and women in those wars
  • U.S. leadership in ending the Cold War

Many of the changes are are subtle, but nevertheless significant.

Describing Southern attitudes about slavery prior to the Civil War, for example, the 2014 framework says that many people "asserted their regional identity through pride in the institution of slavery, insisting that the federal government should defend that institution." 

The 2015 framework reads: "Antislavery efforts increased in the North, while in the South, although the majority of Southerners owned no slaves, most leaders argued that slavery was a part of the Southern way of life."

Some on the other side of the argument already have accused the College Board of “caving” to critics, such as in this piece by the blog ThinkProgress. (The post over all is somewhat neutral toward the changes. But it compares the APUSH debate to recent changes to history guidelines in Texas, which exclude Jim Crow laws and the Klu Klux Klan, for example.)

But Stern said he hoped that wouldn’t be the consensus among historians, since the new document was in his view more historically balanced than its predecessor.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, has publicly defended the 2014 APUSH framework to critics. Grossman said in an interview that he agreed with others that the new framework was more clear than the previous one, including in sections that “have nothing to do with political valence."

Grossman said everyone could find something to criticize in the new 2015 framework, such as the statement that Native American “resistance” to westward expansion led to war. But over all, he said he respected the work of the professional historians involved in all phases of the project. There's nothing wrong with responding to public feedback in a rigorous way, he added.

"One of the great strengths of this framework is that it enables teachers and students to explore issues and ideas that have united and have divided Americans,” Grossman said. 

As recently as June, a number of prominent historians signed on to an open letter opposing the 2014 framework, accusing the College Board of “centralizing control” over the curriculum and promoting “a particular interpretation of history.”

The letter continues: “This interpretation downplays American citizenship and American world leadership in favor of a more global and transnational perspective. … Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals.”

John Agresto, former president of St. John’s College at Santa Fe and former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a letter signatory, said it was too early to comment on the changes Thursday since he was still studying the more than 130-page document. 

Still, he said via email, "if the revised document really does give more serious and thorough attention to the principles and ideas that form the basis of our Constitution and way of life, and if the efforts and insights of the men and women who helped shape our nation are highlighted and brought forward and not merely ‘mentioned,' then the framework will indeed have been improved.” 

The College Board got at least some kudos from previously critical corners. In an essay in the National Review, Frederick M. Hess, director of the education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Max Eden, program manager for education policy at the institute, called the new framework strikes the "balance right between the pluribus and the unum, and does justice to our nation’s remarkable history.” The essay includes a detailed analysis of the changes, including the World War II and manifest destiny examples.

David Burton teaches AP U.S. history at Southmoore High School in Oklahoma, where political opposition to the new framework was high earlier this year (a bill to defund APUSH passed a state legislative committee before it died; similar controversies arose in several other states). Burton, who wasn’t opposed to the 2014 framework but offered the College Board some feedback about how to “massage” some controversial language, said he didn’t know if the changes would do much to address political concerns. But he said he’s happy to start teaching with a more detailed framework than was available prior to last year. 

“The old [pre-2014] framework was a series of outlined bullet points — cover this name, cover this event — but gave no direction on what to cover on that person or event,” he said. “So the new use of descriptive key concepts truly helps educators on what to cover, even if the person or name of the event isn’t specifically mentioned.” 

 

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