01 October 2015 – Adina Langer
In a surprising turn of events, the College Board re-revised the Advanced Placement United States History curriculum framework, releasing its newest version at the end of July. While the move by the Board, which had instituted a public comment period seeking feedback on the framework back in February, is not overly surprising, the reaction among many historians and among the opponents of the original revised framework is. Both historians and critics are largely satisfied.
Seven months ago, I wrote in this publication about the swirling controversy over the College Board’s 2014 framework. The College Board and its supporters argued that the revision had been intended to shift the focus of the course away from rote memorization and toward the cultivation of historical thinking skills. Opponents were concerned about the narrative focus and tone of the course’s key concepts, arguing that the course left out important historical figures and cast an overly negative view of US history. Anthropologist Peter Wood, (not to be confused with Professor Emeritus in American History Peter Wood of Duke University) president of the right-leaning National Association of Scholars, argued point by point that the APUSH framework skewed toward an internationalist, left-leaning approach to US history. (For a well-written questioning of Peter Wood’s scholarly competence, see Alex Golub’s piece in Savage Minds.) The Board countered that the course was intended to maximize teacher autonomy within a set of chronological and conceptual guidelines, avoiding handing down any required curriculum. The new framework does not change the 2014 course’s structure, but it does provide a line-by-line revision of those problematically worded key concepts.
Although the National Association of Scholars and some other groups remain critical, responses have been overwhelmingly positive from teachers, historians, and the press, even the partisan press. To me, the greatest take-away from this process and its results is the often-forgotten aspect of Sam Wineburg’s understanding of historical thinking: the importance of background knowledge and the avoidance of presentism.
In a recent article in History News Network, Jeremy Stern argues, “While the concept and many parts of the content were sound, the framework too often took a tendentious and judgmental approach to history, appearing to urge condemnation of the past for its failure to live up to present-day moral standards. Such an approach–ignoring historical context in favor of current ideological and political priorities–is presentism, not history.”
In his provocative 2009 denunciation of the much-loved Teaching American History grants program as a “boondoggle,” Wineburg argued that many social studies teachers lack the necessary background knowledge in history to effectively model historical thinking skills for students. Although the new, new AP US History framework does not point to specific works of scholarship for teachers to read in their pursuit of this necessary background knowledge, it alludes to the importance of exploring historiography before evaluating new sources.
History is most definitely not a set of bland dates and figures to be swallowed and regurgitated, but it is a very long story filled with moments and movements identified by many skilled professionals as significant. Lenses are also paramount. Some historians posit the importance of unique national factors in charting the course of American history. Others weigh international commonalities (such as movements that spanned the Atlantic) more highly. Public historians further complicate historical practice by engaging directly with communities and sharing authority when interpreting historical themes. Before a person can effectively become “her own historian,” she must understand how historians think and what they do.
Hopefully, the new AP US History framework will do an even better job of providing guidance to teachers as they introduce young people to the process of doing history for the first time. We welcome your comments on the legacy of AP US History and its place within the larger world of public history theory and practice!
~ Adina Langer is the curator of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University. You can follow her on Twitter @artiflection and learn more about her at her website.