Testimony Before the Georgia State Legislature On AP U.S. History

Published February 18, 2015


This is the prepared text of EPPC Senior Fellow Stanley Kurtz’s testimony before the Georgia General Assembly’s Joint Education and Youth Committee on Wednesday, February 18, 2015.

I want to express my gratitude to Sen. Ligon and to the Joint Committee for inviting me to give testimony today on the controversy over changes to the College Board’s Advanced Placement United States History Program.

I testify today as someone who has written on education issues for National Review Online and other journals of policy and opinion for nearly fifteen years. I have a doctorate in Social Anthropology from Harvard University, and have taught in interdisciplinary programs at Harvard University and the University of Chicago. I have used this academic background in the course of my investigative journalism, and it is primarily as an investigative journalist with a special interest in education issues that I testify today, having traced the intellectual background of the College Board’s controversial new AP U.S. History Framework.

I should add that a number of the interdisciplinary influences on the College Board’s new History Framework stem from intellectual currents that were central to my anthropological training, such as the emphasis on transnational culture flows. Also, when I jointly taught a course in the classics of social and political theory at Harvard’s Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, I was asked to present the lecture on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Proceeding now to the nub of the issue, I believe we are here today because the College Board has made a decision to fundamentally transform the teaching of American History. In the past, teachers were simply given a brief, five-page list of topics to cover for the test. The great advantage of this method is that it allowed teachers to present American history from a wide range of perspectives. Teachers could take a traditionalist or a modern approach, a conservative or a liberal approach, or anything in between, and still see their students do well on the test.

Now all of that has changed, and that is why we are here. Now, instead of a brief, five-page topical outline, the College Board has issued eighty pages of detailed guidance. The important point is not simply that the new AP U.S. History Framework is much longer than the old topical outline, but that the Framework now seeks to control how teachers and students ought to think about American history. Instead of simply telling teachers what topics to cover, the College Board is telling them how to treat and present those topics. The token amount of flexibility that remains for teachers is only flexibility within sharp and deeply controversial lines that have already been drawn by the College Board.

It’s true, as the College Board says, that the new Framework has been shaped by contemporary scholarly perspectives on major issues in U.S. History. The problem is, a great deal of contemporary scholarship on American history is driven by a political agenda. This new, sharply revisionist, and highly politicized scholarly agenda seeks to deemphasize America’s national story and to focus instead on global developments. This new historical revisionism is also far more focused on recounting the injustices, real and alleged, of American history than on explaining or exploring our founding principles. This new historical revisionism focuses on themes of race, gender, class, and ethnicity, not merely in addition to, but at the expense of, a focus on America’s unique qualities, or on the principles required for responsible citizenship in a constitutional republic.

To allow this Framework to stand would effectively be to surrender democratic control over what Georgia’s children are taught to the politicized and, frankly, sharply left-leaning academics who dominate Americas colleges and universities today.

If you doubt that the state of affairs in America’s history departments is as bad as all that, I would urge you to consult an article published this very week by one of our most esteemed American historian, Gordon Wood, in The Weekly Standard. A generally liberal-leaning historian respected by conservatives and liberals alike, Wood says that the new generation of American historians is literally “no longer interested in how the United States came to be.” He calls them “moral critics” who “denounce the values of the past in order to somehow reform our present.” So focused are these scholars on “isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed,” such as injustices to the Indians, to the slaves, and to women, says Wood, that “they have difficulty writing any coherent national narrative at all, one that would account for how the United States as a whole came into being,” and in any case avoid doing so for fear of bolstering patriotic sentiment.

Sadly, every one of these problems affects the College Board’s new AP U.S. History Framework. The Framework de-emphasizes or completely eliminates themes like the intellectual background of our constitutional system, the principles of the free-enterprise system, the unique role of faith traditions in American society as opposed to more secular European societies, and America’s emphasis on state and local government within a federalist system in contrast to the more centralized states of Europe. All of these things are part of what is sometimes called “American Exceptionalism,” the qualities that make America distinctive, and yes, admirable, as a country.

In their place, the Framework repeatedly emphasizes the injustices of American history and the clashing interests of race, class, gender, and ethnicity. The Framework’s insistence on framing itself around the global “Atlantic World” seems at times almost to obliterate America as the subject of its own history.

I want to emphasize that the connection between the dismaying trends in academia I’ve been describing and the creation of the new AP U.S. History Framework is direct. In two essays, copies of which have been provided to this committee, I have laid out the story of how the College Board’s new Framework came to be.

The first essay, “How the College Board Politicized U.S. History,” describes an academic movement led by NYU historian Thomas Bender and formally advanced by a committee acting under the auspices of the Organization of American Historians. The purpose of this movement is to “internationalize” the teaching of U.S. history by de-emphasizing our national story and rooting out the belief in American exceptionalism.

Professor Bender’s goals are clearly political, and include the promotion of an American foreign policy that eschews the unilateral use of force, and the production of a generation of students more amendable to working through the United Nations and more receptive of the use of foreign law to interpret the U.S. Constitution. As I show in my investigative piece, key figures behind the creation of the new AP U.S. History Framework have worked with Professor Bender to transform the teaching of American history along “transnationalist” lines.

In a second piece, “Why the College Board Demoted the Founders,” I explain how the Framework was shaped by a new academic conception of the core meaning of the American story. Since Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, American history has been conceived as an effort to more fully realize our Founding principles of liberty and equality, often in the face of our own flaws and failings. In the radically revisionist conception that helped to shape the new AP U.S. History Framework, however, the heart of our country’s story lies in the pursuit of empire—of dominion over others. In this view, the formative American moment was not the Founding but the colonial assault on the Indians. At its core, say these academic revisionists, America’s history is about our capacity for self-delusion, our endless attempts to justify raw power grabs with pretty fairy-tales about democracy. In my second essay, I describe the path by which these views moved from revisionist academics to the creators of the new AP U.S. History Framework.

Let me also note that Framework’s emphasis on historical thinking skills sounds beneficial and is potentially helpful, but in practice can be used to create one-sided skepticism about the traditional national narrative. In fact, there is evidence in the Framework and elsewhere that critical historical scrutiny tends to be applied far more often to the traditional national narrative than to movements on the political left. In any case, what percentage of students become professional historians? Probably less than one percent. In contrast, what percentage of students will become adult citizens of this country? Just about all of them. And yet the prerequisites of democratic citizenship–an understanding of a common national narrative based on democratic principles, within the context of a constitutional and federal republic–are largely absent from the Framework.

Can the Framework be fixed? I don’t believe it can be. First, the College Board has undermined trust by publishing such an ideologically slanted document in the first place. But there’s more to it than that. While America very much needs a unifying national narrative, one of the secrets of this country’s success is the way we accommodate difference by allowing for choice. We are a very polarized country right now, both politically and culturally. It’s gotten to the point where we can’t even decide whether to call our foes “Islamist terrorists” or “violent extremists.” Why then should we expect to see a single national Framework for the teaching of advanced American history?

Now that the College Board has decided to take such a heavy hand in what are effectively curriculum decisions properly left to the states, it is on the verge of turning into a national school board. By issuing detailed guidelines for every single AP test, the College Board is effectively making an end-run around our federalist system. AP U.S. History is only the beginning. Soon the College Board is going to create detailed frameworks for U.S. Government and Politics, European History, and many more. Soon it will be unaccountable and highly politicized professors at universities far outside of Georgia who will in effect be making decisions about education that ought by rights to be in the hands of the voters of Georgia and their representatives.

The solution, I suggest, is for states dissatisfied with the College Board’s new history Framework to explore testing alternatives, exactly as the resolution before you proposes. While it would be premature to go into details, there are already efforts underway to create such alternatives, and I believe those efforts will come to maturity within the next one-to-two years.

It’s time for Georgia and other states that may not share the ideological biases of the College Board’s new Framework to explore alternatives, a move which could open up choice for states across the country.

Of course the College Board will tell you that Georgia’s students benefit from the college credit and the application credential provided by its AP testing program, and so they do. But why should the College Board be allowed to use its current position as an AP testing monopoly to force states to buy into an ideologically biased curriculum? Explore alternative testing options and you can get the very same benefits, without being forced to carry the unwelcome ideological baggage.

There is good reason to believe that this issue is not about to disappear. Quite the contrary, I believe that the controversy over the College Board’s AP History changes–and over the changes the College Board is about to make to all of its AP tests–is only going to grow. The new history Framework was sprung on the public with virtually no real notice. That left critics with little time to mobilize. But now the process is well underway. I believe you are going to see a great many scholars and public figures coming out publicly in opposition to the new history Framework in the coming months and years. And as the College Board issues new Frameworks for all of its other tests, I believe the movement in opposition will grow. So expect to see more, rather than fewer of your constituents up in arms about this issue in the future.

I don’t mean to suggest, by the way that some important scholars haven’t already condemned the College Board’s new history Framework. Ralph Ketcham, distinguished American historian and biographer of James Madison, has said that the Framework represents “the bad and the ugly but not the good of American history.” Modern historian Ron Radosh ended his critique of the last hundred years covered by the Framework by calling the Framework “part of the New Left’s goal of making a long march through the existing institutions that would end with a new radicalized United States.” As I understand it, staff has made available to you copies of these critiques.

Now let me take up a critically important but heretofore neglected aspect of this dispute. Up to now, most of our public debates over the AP U.S. History changes have focused on the new Framework. But it’s critically important to note that the new Framework has been shaped by, and is now actively shaping, a new crop of American History textbooks. These textbooks can be egregiously biased in exactly the ways I have discussed above. And it is these textbooks, rather than the framework itself, that will be read by students.

For this reason, I have selected for presentation today some passages from the Eighth Edition of AMERICA’S HISTORY, by James Henretta, Eric Hinderaker, Rebecca Edwards, and Robert O. Self. This textbook was the first textbook formally reshaped to fit the College Board’s new history Framework. It has also been explicitly endorsed by two members of the nine-member committee that actually wrote the new Framework, and held up by them as a superb example of all that the new Framework is trying to accomplish. A third member of the committee that wrote the new Framework taught his own class with an earlier edition of this text, which seems to have helped inspire the development of the Framework itself.

The passages from this text that I hope to present today are striking, and I want to emphasize, completely in keeping with the overall bias of this textbook, and the bias which flows through the new framework.

Up to now, debate over the new AP U.S. history Framework has turned around what great names and events are left out of, or included in, the document. That is a worthy debate, but once we take the new, Framework-consistent AP U.S. History textbooks into account, the issue changes a bit.

For example, many of the Founders whose names are left out of the Framework do appear in the new AP U.S. History textbooks. But the real question is, how do they appear? How, for example, does the Henretta textbook, which helped inspire the Framework and which was the first textbook formally reshaped to fit the framework, actually present, or fail to present, important figures, events, and trends in American history? The answer, I hope to show you today, is disturbing.

This brings me back to the importance of exploring alternatives to the College Board’s AP testing program. If a true alternative to the College Board’s AP testing program emerges, new textbooks will be created to accompany the new tests. This is where the biggest potential difference to Georgia’s children will come.

Instead of textbooks that underplay the intellectual foundations of our democracy, give short-shrift to our national story, and emphasize globalism, oppression, and group conflict in their place, we can provide our students with textbooks that actually convey the story of America’s constitutional system, as well as the unfolding of our distinctive national qualities.

America’s Founders deeply believed in the importance of history. In their view, healthy republican government cannot exist without public knowledge of its historical and intellectual foundations. In giving short shrift to the background and development of America’s founding principles, the new AP U.S. history Framework does far more than merely debunk or neglect stories of genuine American heroism. By leaving out a proper account of the principles and history of our constitutional republic, along with its genuine achievements, the new AP U.S. History Framework undercuts the development of the informed citizenry required for a healthy democratic process. That, in the end, is what is at stake in this debate, because I have no doubt that all of us desire to equip future generations of Americans with the knowledge needed to maintain a nation of free people. I do not believe that is possible without providing a comprehensive and factual understanding of U.S. history and a balanced respect for the guiding principles and the people who founded this nation.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center

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