How Zinn Gets In: Road to a National Curriculum

Published August 17, 2015

National Review

Politics is downstream of culture. We hear that often, yet pay scant attention as the culture slips into partisan hands. I mean partisan not merely with respect to party, but in respect to a leftist ideology that seeks exclusive cultural as well as political control. Our federalist system has long served as the great bulwark against domination of the country by a single ideological faction. Yet in higher education, the game has largely been lost. Now high school is slipping away.

Slowly but surely, the College Board, sponsor of the controversial 2014 and 2015 AP U.S. history (APUSH) frameworks, is becoming an unelected national school board, setting curricula—and just as important—largely replacing states and localities as the shaper of both textbooks and teacher training at the high school level. As a de facto federally-supported monopoly riding a huge wave of government subsidies, the College Board has grown rich by expanding the reach of its Advanced Placement courses.

We are swiftly headed for a situation in which a quarter, a third, very possibly well over 50 percent of high school students, will be taking so-called advanced placement courses whose guidelines, reading material, and teacher training seminars are all controlled by the College Board, a private company with no responsibility to the voters. The superficial U.S. history changes of this summer notwithstanding, the College Board continues to be a plaything of the left-leaning and highly politicized faculty already in control of the nation’s colleges and universities.

The hyper-controversial Marxist historian and propagandist Howard Zinn has barely been mentioned in the course of the APUSH debate, but once you understand how the College Board’s training apparatus works, you will see that Zinn is very much a part of what is at stake in this battle.

And keep in mind that APUSH changes of 2014 were only the beginning. Now, for the first time, AP European history, and soon AP U.S. Government and Politics, AP World history, and every other AP course will be governed by a lengthy and controlling curricular framework issued by the College Board, with revised textbooks and teacher-training materials to match. Before the College Board decided to issue detailed curricula for all of its courses, its de facto monopoly over AP testing didn’t much matter. Now, by moving to take substantial control over the content of all AP courses, the College Board is effectively putting a national curriculum in place. That curriculum leans left.

The APUSH changes announced this summer do little to alter that fact. I’ve argued (here and here) that the APUSH revisions amount largely to cutting the most controversial statements, while retaining the fundamental leftist thrust of the guidelines. Meanwhile, the brand new AP European history framework is a fraternal twin of the controversial 2014 AP U.S. history guidelines. It downplays national identity, focuses overmuch on the evils of colonialism, is hostile to capitalism, downplays the excesses of the left and the problems of communism, and gives short shrift both to religion and to the sources of classical Western liberalism.

The College Board’s vast and largely left-leaning apparatus of textbooks and teacher-training seminars will swallow up the token changes to the APUSH framework with barely an alteration. The APUSH revisions were made to forestall calls for competition, which would not only cut into the College Board’s profits, but would frustrate the ideological drive for a national curriculum that motivates the College Board’s leadership, above all its president, David Coleman, architect of the Common Core.

A real-life example makes all of this clear. I’ve already told the story of Elizabeth Altham, a prize-winning AP U.S. and AP European history teacher at a classical Catholic preparatory academy, whose rich and stirring approach to history is being thoroughly stifled by the College Board’s left-leaning frameworks.

Now I’d like to introduce Marc Anderson, a charismatic and highly-respected AP U.S. history teacher at a public school high school in small-town central Pennsylvania. Anderson is a vigorous critic of the APUSH curriculum changes, which continually force him to choose between remaining faithful to his core teaching principles, or disadvantaging his students on the exam. Nor have the latest APUSH revisions solved his problem. Anderson’s encounter with an APUSH teacher-training program last summer may be even more revealing of the College Board’s biases, as Howard Zinn was featured throughout. More deeply, Anderson’s story is a powerful example of how difficult it has become for even a mature, confident, and locally popular traditionalist teacher to stand against the cultural power of the left.

Marc Anderson had begun what he hoped would be a lifetime career in the U.S. Air Force when a training accident set off “grand mal” seizures and revealed that he had epilepsy. Honorably discharged, and after some time in the private sector, Anderson entered the “Troops to Teachers” program, and discovered that teaching was not just a job but a true personal calling. When an opportunity to become principal presented itself, Anderson tried it for a time but decided to return to teaching.

Coming from a family of storytellers, Anderson excels at bringing across history through tales of the virtues and vices of individuals. His family vacations are to places like Kitty Hawk, the Alamo, and Plymouth Village. With Gettysburg close by, Anderson walks the battlefield and mulls life-decisions while seated on a rock at Little Round Top.

An evangelical Christian, Anderson is sometimes critical of his co-religionists for abandoning the public schools and disengaging from the culture. Although he certainly leans conservative, Anderson regularly surfs liberal websites like Salon and the Huffington Post and tries to keep up with progressive educational theories, even when they fail to persuade him. At school, Anderson has formed a partnership with a more liberal AP Literature teacher. This allows his students to read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in English class when they study the Progressive Era in APUSH, and The Grapes of Wrath while Anderson is teaching the Depression. Students cover the same material in two classes, but with different methods and from different perspectives, with everyone benefitting from the contrast.

Anderson is unapologetic in teaching his students about America’s exceptional character and accomplishments, from the moral purpose of the New England settlements, to the ideals and risks of the founding, and more. Yet Anderson is equally insistent on acknowledging and learning from American mistakes.

He highlights what he calls Col. Chivington’s “dishonorable and unjustified” 1864 attack on the Indians at Sand Creek, Colorado to bring across the injustices of that era. Yet in contrast to the College Board’s treatment of this period, Anderson doesn’t let this side of the story overwhelm the accomplishments of the pioneers, ranchers, and homesteaders who opened up the West. Nor does he whitewash the brutality of many Native American attacks.

Anderson also has his class debate the question of Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy for holding slaves while affirming that “all men are created equal.” For Anderson, the chief lesson here is that notwithstanding Jefferson’s very real imperfections, he was able to accomplish something remarkable.

Yet for all this, Anderson believes that the College Board has made it increasingly impossible for him to teach U.S. history in a way that is compatible with his core convictions.

Last summer, Anderson attended an AP teacher-training seminar based on the newly redesigned APUSH curriculum. Anderson says the course primed teachers to blame America for the problems of the world, while overlooking its influence for the good. Although few of the APUSH teachers in attendance were from “blue” cities or states, nearly all of them leaned left. In contrast to Anderson, who’d moved from the military, to the private sector, to the classroom, nearly everyone else in the seminar had gone directly from a left-leaning college into teaching.

With all of the focus on the controversial new history curricula, it’s easy to forget that the College Board also encourages the use of “supplementary texts” in its history classes. Here’s where Howard Zinn comes in. If you look at the printed list of suggested supplementary sources for APUSH from Anderson’s seminar, you’ll see an attempt at balance. Zinn is there, but so is conservative-leaning historian Larry Schweikart. In practice, however, neither Schweikert nor any other conservative-leaning historian was mentioned in the seminar, whereas Zinn’s work was studied and continually touted.

Two years ago, former Indiana governor and Purdue University President Mitch Daniels made news when he attacked Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.” (See a defense of Daniels and critiques of Zinn from Peter Wood and Ron Radosh.) Yet, according to Anderson, Zinn was the most commonly cited and celebrated source in his College Board training seminar. In fact, Zinn was mentioned more often than all other historians combined, and was accorded virtual celebrity status. Anderson’s efforts to challenge Zinn as a serious source of instruction were rejected by the instructor, and were met with something close to disgust by many in the class.

If it was only a question of a single training seminar, Anderson would still be free to teach as he sees fit. Unfortunately, Anderson feels strongly that the College Board’s new frameworks are forcing him to choose between a content-rich narrative history focused on individual actors, America’s civic principles, and history-changing wars, on the one hand, and “bottom up,” left-biased social history on the other. Either he stays true to his core principles—and the approach that has made him one of the most popular teachers in his community—or he risks putting his students at a significant disadvantage on the test.

Nor does Anderson see this summer’s APUSH revisions as alleviating his dilemma in any significant way. “The changes are surface in nature,” he says, “a few words added and subtracted. There are no substantive revisions.”

Anderson recognizes that the College Board has been forced to “throw” teachers like him “a bone.” He has read, for example, the somewhat more positive account of World War II in the 2015 framework. Yet he remains confident that history as he teaches it is, and will continue to be, punished by the new APUSH exam.

Anderson also points out that the “fine print” of the 2015 revisions exempts teachers from new audits of their syllabi. Teachers, he says, will continue to work off of their existing course plans, which were built around the controversial 2014 framework. In other words, says Anderson, very little in what students actually hear will change as a result of the latest revisions. As I’ve argued, the latest changes are largely a show put on to defuse public criticism and keep the College Board’s plans for a de facto national curriculum on track.

Marc Anderson’s story is a lesson in the trend of our culture. A conservative-leaning Christian determined to engage with society rather than retreat from it, Anderson is being battered by the nationalization of everything. An admired and influential figure in his area, in another era Anderson would have been leading his local district’s teacher-training seminars instead of having to endure pressure from a Princeton-based national company and the uniformly leftist academics who control it. Anderson’s time in the military and the private sector also distinguish him from a younger cohort of teachers more exclusively shaped by an academy filled with Zinn-loving professors out of touch with America—past and present.

In the absence of a company that can compete with the College Board by offering states and school districts genuine choice, we are headed for a national curriculum controlled by the cultural and political left.

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

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today