A dramatic, unilateral change is taking place in the content of the College Board's Advanced Placement U.S. history course. In fall 2014, almost half a million high school sophomores and juniors will learn a version of U.S. history very different from the course of study now in place.
Currently, a five-page topical outline gives teachers clear guidelines for their course. This long-established outline conforms to the sequence of topics state and local boards of education have approved. In contrast, the new, redesigned Framework is a detailed 98-page document that does far more than list required topics.
This change in format is best described as a curricular coup that sets a number of dangerous precedents. By providing a detailed course of study that defines, discusses, and interprets "the required knowledge of each period," the College Board has in effect supplanted local and state curricula by unilaterally assuming the authority to prioritize historic topics.
This inevitably means some topics will be magnified in importance and others will be minimized or even omitted. If concerned parents, educators, and elected public officials do not speak out, the College Board (led by David Coleman, generally considered the architect of the Common Core national standards) will continue to develop similar frameworks for its 33 other Advanced Placement (AP) courses and thus become an unelected de facto legislature for the nation's public and private high schools.
Frowning at American History
The new Framework inculcates a consistently negative view of the nation's past. For example, the units on colonial America stress the development of a "rigid racial hierarchy" and a "strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority." The Framework ignores the United States' founding principles and their influence in inspiring the spread of democracy and galvanizing the movement to abolish slavery.
The Framework continues this theme by reinterpreting Manifest Destiny. Instead of a belief that America has a mission to spread democracy and new technologies across the continent, the Framework teaches the nation "was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority."
The units on colonial America focus unbalanced attention on the conflicts between the colonists and Native Americans. Students will learn about the Beaver Wars, Chickasaw Wars, and King Philip's War, but they will learn little or nothing about the rise of religious toleration, the development of democratic institutions, and the emergence of a society that included a rich mix of ethnic groups.
A particularly troubling failure of the Framework is its dismissal of the Declaration of Independence and the principles so eloquently expressed there. The Framework's entire discussion of this seminal document consists of just one phrase in one sentence: "The colonists' belief in the superiority of republican self-government based on the natural rights of the people found its clearest American expression in Thomas Paine's Common Sense and in the Declaration of Independence." The Framework thus ignores the philosophical underpinnings of the Declaration and the willingness of the signers to pledge "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor" to the cause of freedom.
Ignoring Cultural Giants
The Framework also sidesteps any discussion of the personalities and achievements of American giants whose courage and conviction helped build United States. It excises Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and the other founders from the nation's story. George Washington's historical contributions are reduced to a brief sentence fragment noting his Farewell Address. Two pages later, the Framework grants teachers the flexibility to discuss the architecture of Spanish missions, suggesting it merits more attention than the heroes of 1776.
The Framework consistently emphasizes negative events while ignoring positive achievements. For example, although it does not mention the sacrifices U.S. civilians and armed forces made to defeat fascism, it does recommend teachers focus on "[w]artime experiences, such as the internment of Japanese Americans, challenges to civil liberties, debates over race and segregation, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb [which] raised questions about American values."
AP U.S. History should give students a balanced curriculum that acknowledges both the nation's founding principles and its continuing struggles to be faithful to those principles. Instead, the new College Board Framework seems determined to create a cynical generation of what it calls "apprentice historians." Is this really what we want our children to learn about our nation's history?
The AP U.S. History Framework is not a fait accompli. There is still time for parents, educators, and public officials to scrutinize it closely and then demand a new curriculum that does not trump state curriculum requirements with warmed-over political correctness.