Republicans throw a conniption over the teaching of U.S. history

As students prepare to return to school in the next few weeks, there’s no better time for a conservative freakout over education. The issue of the moment is a new outline, or “framework,” issued by the College Board for advanced placement classes in US history.

The framework is here. According to a resolution passed at the recent summer meeting of the Republican National Committee meeting in Chicago, it “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects.” The RNC calls the framework, which is to be implemented for some 500,000 AP history students this fall, “biased and inaccurate.”

The RNC calls for Congress to de-fund the College Board, an independent body, until the course material can be “ accurately reflect U.S. history without a political bias.”

You can see what’s happening here: it’s a continuation of the old culture wars, transplanted to the AP history classroom and slathered over with political foam. One would expect the College Board, in the name of sound pedagogical principle, to treat this uproar with the inattention it deserves.

One would be wrong. The board’s president, David Coleman, responded with a pusillanimous open letter praising the critics as “patriots who care deeply about what students learn” and bowing to the “principled confusion the new framework produced.” If he thinks this sort of soft-soaping will mollify the mob, he’s got another think coming.


Coleman also notes that he joined the College Board “after the new U.S. History framework was developed and released” (emphasis his), which is an odd way of standing up foursquare for years of work by one’s colleagues. He sounds a bit like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Duke of Plaza-Toro, who “when there was any fighting...led his regiment from behind.”

The attack on the AP curriculum is being led by a retired history teacher from New Jersey named Larry Krieger, whose classroom approach seems to have been based on filling his students’ heads with facts and names and dates, underscoring what he calls America’s “mission to spread democracy” and with due attention to qualities such as “the valor or heroism of American soldiers” in World War II.

Krieger soon linked up with the Christian conservative group Concerned Women for America, and a campaign was born. On August 4 he participated in a conference call with other conservative activists sponsored by CWA (a recording can be found here), from which the above quotes were taken. He mentioned his rising anger at the framework’s failing to mention any of his personal historical heroes, such as the Puritan leader John Winthrop, whose “city on a hill” sermon “sets the theme of American exceptionalism,” Krieger said.

The College Board’s Coleman maintains that the attack on the framework is based on a “significant misunderstanding”; the framework is an outline which AP history teachers are expected to fill in with facts, dates, and concepts, encouraging their students to develop their critical faculties. It’s not proscriptive--just because a particular person or document isn’t mentioned doesn’t mean he, she, or it is to be excluded from the curriculum--quite the contrary.

In the words of an open letter written by the authors of the framework and published Monday by Education Week, the AP history course is “an advanced, college-level course--not an introductory U.S. history course--and is not meant to be students’ first exposure to the fundamental narrative of U.S. history.”

By the time students get to AP, the authors observe, they’re expected to know about the historical figures whose absence from the framework Krieger bemoans, such as Benjamin Franklin, Dwight Eisenhower, and Martin Luther King. And teachers at this advanced level are assumed to have the tools to put such personages in context.

“Many of the comments we have heard about the framework,” the authors state pointedly, “reflect either a misunderstanding of U.S. history or a very limited faith in history teachers’ command of their subject matter.” Unlike the College Board’s Coleman, they don’t pussyfoot around with references to the “principled confusion” of the critics; they refer to “uninformed criticisms,” which is certainly closer to the mark.

But is Krieger “uninformed,” or something else? His description of the framework during that conference call certainly seemed incomplete.

He suggested that the document’s treatment of World War II was limited to a line about how “wartime 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 raised questions about American values” (which sounds accurate enough).

But he doesn’t mention that the very next passage in the framework is this: “The United States and its allies achieved victory over the Axis powers through a combination of factors, including allied political and military cooperation, industrial production, technological and scientific advances, and popular commitment to advancing democratic ideals.”

A resolution by ideologues based on this crabbed and incomplete reading of the framework is going to look idiotic, and the RNC’s resolution fills that bill.

The College Board has taken the additional step of releasing a sample AP U.S. history test to demonstrate the inclusiveness of its approach. But Krieger, for one, isn’t satisfied. He paged through it last week with Newsweek, settling on a series of questions keyed to a famous 1890 photograph by Jacob Riis of squalid conditions in a New York tenement.

One question asked is “Conditions like those shown in the image contributed most directly to which of the following?” The correct answer is, “An increase in Progressive reform activity.”

Kreiger comments, “That’s historically true but note that progressives are going to be the heroes in this narrative.”

There’s your bottom line. In the conservative educational world, historical truth will take you only so far. It’s the ideological narrative they’re concerned with, and if it doesn’t conform to their vision of an America invariably shining the light of freedom and plenty on the world, it must be “biased and inaccurate.”

Teachers, and the College Board, should be standing up for principle here, and beating back efforts like this to smother the broad, multi-dimensional realities of American history within a candy-colored shell.

Keep up to date with The Economy Hub by following @hiltzikm.