The American Historical Association this week urged the College Board to rethink its plan to effectively begin the Advanced Placement World History curriculum in the year 1450. In so doing it joined a contentious debate over what world history means and who gets included.
Specifically, critics of the board’s decision say that beginning the AP World History exam -- and by extension AP World History courses -- in 1450 instead of earlier erases various world cultures prior to their interactions with white Europeans. The board and its defenders argue that the content covered in the current exam is too much, however, as it necessities teaching 10,000 years of world history in a single academic year.
“While recognizing the challenges of teaching the current course with its broad scope, the AHA believes that this particular revision is likely to reduce the teaching of precolonial histories at the high school level,” Mary Beth Norton, association president and Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History at Cornell University, and James Grossman, the association’s executive director, said in an open letter to Trevor Packer, senior vice president of AP and instruction at the College Board.
Risk of a ‘Western-Centric’ Perspective
The change “risks creating a Western-centric perspective at a time when history as a discipline and world history as a field have sought to restore as many voices as possible to the historical record and the classroom,” Norton and Grossman added, echoing the many critics of the board’s plan.
Last week, for example, Packer defended the new exam scope to a group of skeptical teachers at a forum in Utah. One former teacher, Amanda DoAmaral, told Packer that the debate is about historical context as well as “showing our black and brown and our Native students that their histories matter, their histories don’t start at slavery. Their histories don’t start at colonization. You’re just another person of authority telling my students that they don’t matter, and you need to take responsibility for that.”
Packer began to say, “I think you need to take responsibility for assigning me a position that is not accurate,” but his response was drowned out by boos. He followed up by saying that the world history content to be cut from the test is “so important” that it shouldn’t be “rushed over.”
To that point, the College Board has proposed that world history prior to 1450 be taught in a separate, full-length pre-AP course. That kind of two-course approach to world history mirrors the two-survey-course structure at most colleges and universities anyway, they say. But teachers argue that a pre-AP course doesn’t carry the same weight as a potentially credit-bearing AP course, and that poorer schools won’t pay the College Board for access to that second curriculum.
This is not AP History’s first brush with controversy. In 2015, the College Board adjusted the AP U.S. history framework to appease critics who charged that an earlier redesign was slanted too far to the political left. In some ways, the new world history debate echoes ongoing discussions on college and universities campuses about what to do with Western civilization-style courses. Reed College, for example, faced a yearlong student protest over its signature introductory humanities course. This spring, the college announced it was repackaging the course to address criticism that it was too Eurocentric, too male and too white. Just this month, Reed said it had received a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the new curriculum.
“The grant will allow Reed to hire an extra humanities professor, provide time and training for professors to immerse themselves in the new course material, and deepen the collections and resources” in the library, the college announced.
In their letter to Packer, who oversees the AP program, Norton and Grossman said that the College Board should consult “leading practitioners in the field before implementing such a significant change.” They offered to organize, under the auspices of the AHA, conversations between the board and historians teaching in different contexts. A session at the association’s annual meeting in January also will discuss the exam and “how to teach AP-level world history in a way that preserves its multivocal richness and chronological breadth,” they said.
Grossman said via email Tuesday that the U.S. history debate was partly about the “relationship between comprehensive coverage and historical thinking.” The board has since moved the U.S. history curriculum toward what is also an increasing emphasis in higher education, he said -- a "less rigid approach to comprehensive coverage and greater attention to historical thinking.”
That balance might also inform the world history coverage discussions, Grossman said. In any case, “all conversations about AP relate directly to higher education because an AP course is supposed to be a college-level course,” he added. So it’s not just a matter of the College Board “getting advice from professors as subject area experts. College professors who teach world history need to affirm that the AP exam assesses whether a student has learned the material expected of a college student.”
Depth Versus Breadth and the ‘Spirit’ of a Course
Richard Warner, the Jane and Frederic Hadley Chair in history at Wabash College, former president of the World History Association and a current member of the College Board’s AP World History test-development committee, said he’s currently working to address various concerns about the test. Under discussion is whether to recommend to the College Board to “back up the starting point a little, say to 1200, which should address some of the critiques of Eurocentrism that have been raised,” he said.
As for how the change might impact academe, Warner said it will vary by institution. At Wabash, for example, he said, students who earn AP credit for world history in high school get to choose which history survey course to apply it to: world history to 1500 or world history since 1500. If the College Board goes through with its current plan, he said, Wabash would likely only accept AP credit for the latter survey. Other institutions sometimes award more credit, for two courses, or “both halves,” he said. Some might decide to only award one course worth of credit, he said. But “given the competition that has emerged in relation to admissions, I doubt we will see many colleges pull out.”
Warner said he supports the proposed changes but understands the arguments of both advocates and critics. Starting the course at 1450 “does indeed present a challenge in terms of Eurocentrism, limiting the place of people of color and ordinary people, and a possible retrenchment to the idea of the rise of the West as a master narrative.” Warner said he faces that challenge each spring, when Wabash offers the course on world history since 1500.
“The problem needs to be interrogated in the teaching of the course, since most Americans come preloaded with this Western narrative,” whether they recognize it or not, he said. Another “compelling” objection is that “this course may well be the only time that a high school student will encounter ancient history.”
Arguments in favor of the world history redesign include that raw student test scores (before they’re translated into 1-5 marks) and teacher satisfaction are currently “very low,” Warner said. He called both findings “dispiriting” since, in his view, the current curriculum is “very thoughtful and has led the way in redesign” for the other AP history courses, U.S. and European.
The current AP World History course "has made excellent use of the significant world history scholarship that has emerged in the past generation,” Warner added. “That said, there is good data to show that students are not learning as much of it as we hope, and that teachers find the teaching of the course problematic.”
The College Board, of course, attributes part of that to current course breadth. Warner summed up the debate over all as one of breadth versus depth, saying it’s a choice between “continuing to put together a course that, for many students, ends up providing a cursory knowledge of the subject that hopefully they will return to in college or elsewhere,” or “limiting the historical breadth so that students will walk away with a more solid grasp of world history since 1450," or some other decided-upon date.
Warner said he's hopeful that changes will be made to "enhance student learning while maintaining the spirit of this great course.” A final decision from the College Board is expected next year, to take effect in the 2019-20 academic year.