Conservatives Are Furious Over the Mildest Revisions to the AP U.S. History Exam

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Sept. 4 2014 1:34 PM

Don’t Know Much Revisionist History

Conservatives are appalled by changes to the AP U.S. history exam. Which is funny, because the changes are hardly revolutionary. 

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National Review has been on a crusade against the new guidelines, with Stanley Kurtz warning, “This Framework will effectively force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a leftist perspective,” and that the guidelines can “only be interpreted as an attempt to hijack the teaching of U.S. history on behalf of a leftist political and ideological perspective.” He continues: “The College Board has drastically eroded the freedom of states, school districts, teachers, and parents to choose the history they teach their children.”

In the latest shot against the test, Tennessee lawmakers have urged the state board of education to review the framework and materials. “There are many concerns with the new [AP U.S. history] framework, not the least of which is that it pushes a revisionist interpretation of historical facts,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham in a statement on Tuesday. “The items listed as required knowledge have some inclusions which are agenda-driven, while leaving out basic facts that are very important to our nation's history.”

Sixty years ago, an academic focus on women and minorities was radical. Then, for instance, students learned a “Lost Cause” history of events like the Civil War, where “states’ rights” were the aim and Reconstruction was a corrupt, wrong-headed disaster. Today, after decades of revision and correction, it’s banal. To say—as the College Board does—that the British system of slavery was “reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority” is to cover territory mined and accepted in the 1970s.

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The same goes for the description of Manifest Destiny. In What Hath God Wrought, his contribution to the Oxford History of the United States, historian Daniel Walker Howe describes the 19th-century slogan as a justification for policies that were “permeated” with the “assumption of white supremacy.” “It never occurred to U.S. policymakers,” notes Howe, “to take seriously the claims of nonwhite or racially mixed societies to territorial integrity.” Teaching this is an assault on historical standards if your goal is a pleasing hagiography of the United States, not a serious look at our national actions and collective beliefs.

With that said, the standards are still filled with traditional history. The claim that students are losing the core ideas of American history education is false. In the AP U.S history practice exam, students are asked to read quotes from Capt. John Smith, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ronald Reagan. They discuss topics like the Great Awakening and American intervention in World War II, and have to grapple with rhetoric from Thomas Paine. The essay questions deal with democracy, the American frontier, national identity, and global American leadership. The guidelines are long, but I recommend you read the test, or even take it. I did, and I found a balanced look at the full scope of American history, not a left-wing tirade against the nation’s sins.

Indeed, if you were going to go the Howard Zinn route, you’d have a course dedicated to the slave-owning hypocrisy of the Founders, the extermination of Native Americans, the gross oppression of women, the brutality of the Confederacy, the anti-black terror of Reconstruction, the anti-Chinese mobs in California, the labor suppression of the Gilded Age, the bloody occupation of the Philippines, the lynchings and white race riots of the early 20th century, the Japanese internment, and the general extent to which white supremacy was the ruling ideology of American elites for the better part of 200 years. Conservatives are angry with the College Board standards? They’d have rage strokes at what actual lefties would do to American history curriculums.

But then, so would I. For as much as those are important facts of history that deserve a full accounting in classrooms, a course devoted to our moral failures is as blinkered and unsatisfying as a course devoted to a morality tale of American goodness and American freedom.

What students need—and what the College Board has tried to give—is a history that tells a fair and complex story of America, a country born of lofty goals that it still struggles to fulfill. As adult citizens, we should want the same. The fairy tales of our youth may feel good, but a real grappling with our history is what we need to move forward.

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

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