A few years ago, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, visited Bowdoin College at the invitation of a student organization. While there Wood spoke with an assembly of students about the spotty coverage of history at the Maine college—all the courses were focused and specialized, such as “Women on the Home Front” (the only WWII course). Why no survey classes? One young man spoke up, saying it was because every student who was accepted to Bowdoin had taken the AP (Advanced Placement) history course in high school, so they already knew American history. “Ask me any question,” the student offered. “I’ll ace it.”
Wood was impressed—not with the student’s erudition but with his blithe arrogance. Who else would believe they had gained all the knowledge they needed from a single course—except perhaps the creators of the course? AP, as every college-bound teen knows, is a creation of the College Board, a private company founded in 1900 to maintain high standards for college admissions. Over time the mission has drifted to making college available to as many students as possible—leading inevitably to a slide in standards. The College Board exercises a huge influence over college admissions by administering and scoring the Standardized Achievement Test (SAT), while its AP courses and exams offer high schoolers an opportunity to receive college credit or skip requisite classes. But now the College Board is taking steps to determine the content of those classes, especially history.
Previous AP history courses left teachers considerable leeway in content. The new AP United States History Course and Exam, effective this fall, offers a revised and detailed syllabus that proposes to make teenagers “apprentice historians” by developing “historical thinking skills,” like “chronological reasoning, comparing and contextualizing, crafting historical arguments using historical evidence”—pretty ambitious, for a single high school class. Seven themes dominate this view of American history: “Identity; Politics and power; Peopling; Work, exchange and technology, America in the World; Environment and geography; and Ideas, beliefs, and culture.”
Critics claim the resulting course skews left, ignores key historical figures, and misinterprets founding documents. As Wood put it, “almost every item in the … picture of recent history seems to argue for one side of a dispute.” Nonsense, responds College Board vice president Trevor Packer. The course outline is simply an outline, and any capable history teacher—all of whom are AP certified—can fill in the blanks. One problem with that answer is that the College Board writes the exam and determines what answers are correct. If sample questions are any clue, key narratives and people take a backseat to economics and social movements. Allegedly, the entire test has been released to certified AP teachers, but they’re not to reveal the contents.
The course as described is worse than left leaning—it’s boring. The worst damage inflicted on American history by liberal educators is reducing it to struggles between impersonal “forces,” in the good old Marxist way, rather than stories of real people in real, dramatic, relevant situations. The worst result is not young communists, but young know-it-alls strangely innocent of how little they really know.