A Hard Left for High-School History

Published October 30, 2014

National Review

At the height of the “culture wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, conservatives were alive to the dangers of a leftist takeover of American higher education. Today, with the coup all but complete, conservatives take the loss of the academy for granted and largely ignore it. Meanwhile, America’s college-educated Millennial generation drifts ever farther leftward.

Now, however, an ambitious attempt to force a leftist tilt onto high-school U.S.-history courses has the potential to shake conservatives out of their lethargy, pulling them back into the education wars, perhaps to retake some lost ground.

The College Board, the private company that develops the SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) exams, recently ignited a firestorm by releasing, with little public notice, a lengthy, highly directive, and radically revisionist “framework” for teaching AP U.S. history. The new framework replaces brief guidelines that once allowed states, school districts, and teachers to present U.S. history as they saw fit.

The College Board has promised to generate detailed guidelines for the entire range of AP courses (including government and politics, world history, and European history), and in doing so it has effectively set itself up as a national school board. Dictating curricula for its AP courses allows the College Board to circumvent state standards, virtually nationalizing America’s high schools, in violation of cherished principles of local control. Unchecked, this will result in a high-school curriculum every bit as biased and politicized as the curriculum now dominant in America’s colleges.

Not coincidentally, David Coleman, the new head of the College Board, is also the architect of the Common Core, another effort to effectively nationalize American K–12 education, focusing on English and math skills. As president of the College Board, Coleman has found a way to take control of history, social studies, and civics as well, pushing them far to the left without exposing himself to direct public accountability.

Although the College Board has steadfastly denied that its new AP U.S. history (APUSH) guidelines are politically biased, the intellectual background of the effort indicates otherwise. The early stages of the APUSH redesign overlapped with a collaborative venture between the College Board and the Organization of American Historians to rework U.S.-history survey courses along “internationalist” lines. The goal was to undercut anything that smacked of American exceptionalism, the notion that, as a nation uniquely constituted around principles of liberty and equality, America stands as a model of self-government for the world.

Accordingly, the College Board’s new framework for AP U.S. history eliminates the traditional emphasis on Puritan leader John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” sermon and its echoes in American history. The Founding itself is demoted and dissolved within a broader focus on transcontinental developments, chiefly the birth of an exploitative international capitalism grounded in the slave trade. The Founders’ commitment to republican principles is dismissed as evidence of a benighted belief in European cultural superiority.

Thomas Bender, the NYU historian who leads the Organization of American Historians’ effort to globalize and denationalize American history, collaborated with the high-school and college teachers who eventually came to lead the College Board’s APUSH redesign effort. Bender frames his movement as a counterpoint to the exceptionalist perspective that dominated American foreign policy during the George W. Bush administration. Bender also openly hopes that students exposed to his approach will sympathize with Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s willingness to use foreign law to interpret the U.S. Constitution rather than with Justice Antonin Scalia’s rejection of foreign law as an arbiter of American jurisprudence.

A second stream of thought shaping the College Board’s new APUSH guidelines derives from revisionist work by historian Francis Jennings on the role of American Indians in U.S. history. This line of thinking dismisses Abraham Lincoln’s vision in the Gettysburg Address of an America sometimes failing yet always struggling to uphold the democratic principles of its founding. Pretty lies about liberty and equality are stories we tell ourselves to justify naked imperialist power grabs, say Jennings and his followers. In this view, the core American story is not republican but imperial, while the paradigmatic American moment is not the Founding but the colonists’ assault on the Indians.

University of Colorado historian Fred Anderson, one of Jennings’s most sophisticated interpreters, helped reshape the amount of attention that the AP course gives to different periods and influenced members of the committee that drafted the new guidelines. Accordingly, the redesigned APUSH framework expands the treatment of colonial and pre-Columbian history at the expense of the Founding and much of what used to be viewed as the heart of American political history. The emphasis of the newly expanded sections of the course is on racism, ethnocentrism, and mistreatment of the Indians.

In a report for Boston’s Pioneer Institute, American historian Ralph Ketcham, author of a classic biography of James Madison, condemned the College Board’s new history guidelines for “deliberately minimizing or distorting” the story of America’s founding.

The redesigned framework’s treatment of more recent developments is no freer of bias than is its handling of early-American history. The revised guidelines present New Deal and Great Society liberalism in a positive light, while portraying conservatives as reactive and fearful. Leftist movements of the 1960s are sympathetically featured, while large tracts of modern political and economic history are omitted. Ronald Reagan is called “bellicose,” and his achievements are attributed to a belated willingness to make friends with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev rather than to his determination to hold fast on issues such as the deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe. After delivering a blistering critique of the second half of the framework, the historian of modern America Ron Radosh called it a major step forward in the New Left’s “long march through the existing institutions.”

Or have the Left’s long-marchers finally ventured too far, exposing themselves to counterattack? Private colleges are insulated from the public will in a way that local schools are not. Parents may be baffled by college-level courses, but they are likely to understand that something more is at stake when a public-high-school history course slights George Washington or the Constitution. The APUSH controversy has already refocused attention on the question of bias among academic historians, who’ve been largely free of public scrutiny and criticism for decades. APUSH could easily backfire.

The College Board holds a monopoly on the market for Advanced Placement testing, a monopoly subsidized by state and federal governments. That is a source of power, but also of vulnerability. Exit from APUSH by even a single large state, much less a multi-state rebellion, would play havoc with the College Board’s income, perhaps attracting competitors as well. Texas, which represents a tenth of the College Board’s market, is currently considering withdrawal from APUSH. Other states could follow.

By confining notice of its bold revisionist move to a network of associated teachers, the College Board managed to install the new APUSH framework before any state could object. This guarantees at least a year’s worth of history wars, with the fate of our schools, and even of U.S. history as an academic discipline, up for serious public reconsideration. Whichever side prevails, this will be a cultural turning point.

The conception of this country held by a new generation of Americans is at stake. Conservatives need to jump into this battle as if our fate depended on it. Assuredly, it does.

– Mr. Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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