APUSH Teacher Rebels, Goes Public

Published August 6, 2015

National Review Online

It is my pleasure to introduce Elizabeth Altham, an AP U.S. history (APUSH) teacher who has courageously come forward to take issue with the College Board’s revised and supposedly transformed American history framework. Altham’s story shows how the College Board’s creation of a de facto national high school curriculum continues to hamper traditional and conservative educators across the nation, despite recent claims that the APUSH problem has been solved.

In the debate over the College Board’s controversial 2014 and 2015 APUSH frameworks, one voice has so far been absent—arguably the most important voice. If the College Board’s left-leaning and highly directive new curriculum frameworks hurt anyone (beyond America’s next generation, of course), it is the teachers who elect a more traditional approach—a history that duly considers our founding principles, the virtues and vices of our leaders, America’s wars, and its religious heritage. The sort of APUSH teacher who assigns Howard Zinn’s Marxist take on America (and there are plenty of them) isn’t going to raise hell over the College Board’s stress on identity groups, migration, gender, environmentalism, and such. The problem comes when traditional or conservative educators are forced to choose between the curriculum they want, and their students’ performance on the test.

This is what is happening to Elizabeth Altham, an award-winning teacher of both AP U.S. and AP European history at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Academy, a private, Catholic K–12 college-preparatory school in Rockford, Ill. In 2006, the Acton Institute named Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Academy one of the Top Fifty Catholic High Schools in the nation. In 2009, Altham herself received the Salvatori Award for Excellence in Teaching, an award presented by Hillsdale College each year to recognize teachers and schools that provide a superior liberal-arts education. Sacred Heart boasts that its mission is: “Passing on our Catholic and Western Heritage through the classical liberal arts.” It’s a mission the College Board has made more difficult to fulfill, says Altham.

The reason we haven’t yet heard from teachers who object to the College Board’s newly imposed left-leaning curricula is that open criticism entails serious risks. The College Board certifies AP teachers, approves their syllabi, and pays many of them to grade the essay portions of its exams. So it’s rare when one of the teachers who quietly opposes the College Board’s current direction can risk coming forward. Fortunately for us, Altham has decided to do so.

Elizabeth Altham is the sort of high-school history teacher most people wish they’d had — passionate and charismatic, with a powerful sense of the stakes in history and its relevance for our time. She is also a living example of a way of teaching that is fast disappearing—where history turns on the motives, decisions, and moral characters of individual men. Both Altham and her students understand that in studying history this way, they are standing against the tide.

One of Altham’s favorite stories is that of a Captain Preston who stood and risked British fire at Lexington in 1775. More than sixty years later, a young Massachusetts judge asked him why the farmers fought. “Young man,” he said, “we had always governed ourselves. They meant we shouldn’t. We meant we should.” Taking a leaf from the Founders, Altham sees herself as “educating for liberty,” knowing full-well how powerfully today’s fashionable social-history cuts against traditional civic education. Altham refuses to “neglect the personal choices of individual men” in favor of what she calls the College Board’s “bias in favor of impersonal forces.”

Altham had no idea that history was interesting or important until she heard her classmates at Yale draw historical examples into political discussion. She began to feel that her ignorance of history had cut her off from “nearly the entire body of human experience.” Then a course on classical Greece with renowned historian Donald Kagan (a recent signatory of the APUSH protest letter), determined her life-course. Years later, as she began to teach at Sacred Heart, Altham continued to consult with Kagan. “What is Herodotus’ theme,” she asked him, “that the deeds of great men should not be forgotten?” “Or that free men fight better,” Kagan replied. That free men fight better has become a guiding principle of Altham’s teaching.

At its most basic, Altham’s approach to the classroom is this: “I must meet each student on his own ground, and draw him into ‘the ongoing conversation,’ that is, the great questions of what is good and true and right.” Her favorite teaching trick: “We get our kids addicted to Marcus Aurelius, Dante, Shakespeare and Eliot; thus, they develop an antipathy to garbage.” Altham’s proudest boast: “During the past couple of years, whenever a current public official has done or said something especially wrong, one of our students has expostulated, “What would John Adams say?” As I said, Altham is a living example of a type of teacher being driven to extinction. And our country is the poorer for it.

Altham believes that even before the introduction of the controversial controlling 2014 APUSH curriculum framework, the College Board’s directions betrayed an ideological tilt. The pre-2014 directions, she says, “placed inordinate emphasis upon the bad behavior of European invaders and colonists, and upon ‘trends and processes,’ while neglecting the good behavior of many of those men, and the importance of the characters and choices of individuals; also, it neglected the philosophy of government the colonists brought with them.”

So have the recent APUSH revisions addressed Altham’s concerns? After looking at both the 2015-16 APUSH framework and the newly introduced AP European history framework, Altham concludes that her major concerns are “not allayed.” She complains of the College Board’s “minimization, if not the outright ignoring, of the characters and decisions of great men.” Altham continues: “Today, the notion has entered the water supply that the characters and decisions of individuals do not matter; too many of our young consider debunking a marker for intelligence and sophistication. The notion underlying that notion is even more pernicious: that individuals are not responsible for outcomes, either as a matter of simple causation or as a matter of ethics. I see these two notions embodied in the College Board’s emphasis on processes and groups (classes, races, genders).”

Altham believes that the heavy tilt of the new APUSH and AP European history frameworks toward social history and away from politics, war, and diplomacy has made it tougher for her to present history in the way that both she and her students find most compelling. Increasingly she is being forced to choose between doing what she does best, and meeting the requirements of a framework whose underlying assumptions she rejects.

Having read over the College Board’s thoroughly biased new AP European history framework, I can well understand the concerns Altham voiced to me about its treatment of religion. Essentially, the AP European history framework presents religion as something to evolve away from. Altham complains that the framework implicitly marks a Thomist point of view as immature in comparison to a skeptical secularism. She’s right. With the class-based analysis built into the AP European history framework, Altham wonders why the College Board seems to have joined Marx in demoting religion to an epiphenomenon at best.

Obviously, high-school history teachers will vary in their approach. Before the College Board began to introduce its lengthy history frameworks in 2014, enough flexibility remained in the program for educators like Altham to coexist with the most neo-Marxist, Zinn-loving APUSH teachers. Now, however, the Zinnites are fine, while an extraordinary teacher like Altham is under pressure to discard not only her teaching techniques, but the deeply-held beliefs that animate them — or risk her students’ performance on the exam.

That is wrong. And notwithstanding its heated denials, the de facto national curriculum the College Board is busily creating is handing over this country’s culture and future to the left side of the political spectrum. This baleful situation will not change until the College Board has a bona fide competitor able to make life safe for teachers like Elizabeth Altham and the students who are lucky enough to know them.

Addendum: I have been consulting with a number of AP teachers dissatisfied with the College Board’s new curriculum frameworks. If you are an AP teacher who shares such concerns, feel free to contact me at the email address below. You will not be publicly quoted or named without your explicit permission.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at [email protected]

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