Did Republican politicians just win a battle over the teaching of American history?
Right-wing political activists and Republican politicians all but declared war on the College Board over a revision to the Advancement Placement U.S. History "framework," the document that helps instructors shape their teaching of the course. The critics contended that the company was pushing a revisionist, left-wing curriculum that was distinctly unpatriotic. Many historians strongly disagreed, arguing that the changes represented a much-needed shift away from memorization and would foster critical thinking.
But at the end of July, the College Board released a revision to the revision, which to some observers was a capitulation to the pressure. As Newsweek — which broke the story on July 29 — put it in a headline, "Revised AP U.S. History Standards Will Emphasize American Exceptionalism."
NCAC covered this round of the 'history wars' in the Spring 2015 issue of Censorship News. As we noted, the campaign was linked to the agitation against the Common Core educational standards — even though the two issues are not connected whatsoever. Grassroots conservative groups like the American Principles Project and Concerned Women for America took up the cause, and Republican lawmakers soon joined the fray. The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution in August 2014 declaring that the new framework "reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects." They advocated for federal funding to be withheld from the College Board.
Republican lawmakers introduced bills in several states, including Georgia and Oklahoma, stressing the need to replace the framework with a version of American history more in sync with their political beliefs.
It goes without saying that activists and citizens should be free to speak out on controversies like this. But it's equally important to note that the framework revision was conducted by a team of professional historians and instructors who specialize in the subject, and many of them argued that their critics were misrepresenting the facts in an attempt to score political points.
So does the new framework represent a capitulation? The most notable change is the new section on 'American Exceptionalism.' A reference to the "bellicose" rhetoric of Ronald Reagan has been removed. The framework also mentions more Founding Fathers by name, another chief concern of the conservative critics. The historians who drafted the revision had argued that it was not necessary to include such names, since teachers would be certain to include them without prompting.
And some of the language about slavery and the Civil War has been softened. As Collen Flaherty noted for Inside Higher Ed, while the 2014 revision mentioned that many Southerners "asserted their regional identity through pride in the institution of slavery," the 2015 revised framework stresses that "although the majority of Southerners owned no slaves, most leaders argued that slavery was a part of the Southern way of life."
But the outcome does not appear to be a dramatic re-write of the framework. Some of the conservative critics are happy with what they see; others, like Stanley Kurtz of the National Review, still think the framework leaves something to be desired. What is certain is the debates will continue.