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Teach Me Liberty

New AP U.S. History curriculum doesn't adulate America, and that's a good thing


  • College Board

In 2012, the College Board announced a redesigned curriculum and exam for Advanced Placement U.S. History. According to the board, the redesigned curriculum reflected educator concerns regarding the original curriculum framework, described by some as a "grab-bag of historical trivia" in which students memorized a series of historical facts and regurgitated them on the final test. Educators worried that the curriculum sent students to college lacking the critical-thinking and writing skills that are vital to academic success.

The new curriculum entered classrooms this year, resulting in a media firestorm when conservatives interpreted the redesign as a "liberal conspiracy." Glenn Beck claimed the new framework "eliminates mention of the founding fathers," and the Republican National Committee announced a resolution attempting to delay the new curriculum, as it "reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation's history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects." Hundreds of Colorado students walked out of class in protest when their school board announced a decision to possibly alter the new AP curriculum in order to promote "respect for authority" and discourage "civil disorder."

I teach AP U.S. History, and in the weeks before school, I received e-mails from self-identified "concerned citizens" ordering me to abandon liberal revisionism and teach "American exceptionalism." Some seemed to be heeding the instructions from conservative special-interest groups such as the Eagle Forum, which encouraged members to contact teachers in voicing their disapproval of the new curriculum. The author of one message claimed that "if students do not come away from their history class with a greater love of their country and an appreciation for its amazing history, then the class has failed."

I'm not yet an expert in teaching the new curriculum, but I can say the new design helps solve the issue of Jeopardy-style learning by emphasizing primary-source analysis and thinking skills such as causation, argumentation, interpretation and use of relevant evidence. Exam questions require students to analyze documents and write arguments, and allow me to focus on teaching critical thinking instead of worrying about what minutia may end up on the multiple-choice test.

The new curriculum isn't perfect. Trevor Packer, senior vice president of the College Board, recently recognized the challenges in maintaining objectivity when it comes to giving liberal and conservative presidents equal "air time" in the curriculum, and argued that the redesign attempted to solve these problems by introducing more "balanced and robust" material to the curriculum, in the hopes that by working with a wide variety of ideas, students will be able to develop their own academic arguments.

It's these "balanced and robust" materials that seem to bother the critics, who claim that anything recognizing the United States as less than perfect is "liberal," "revisionist" and "anti-American." The Heartland Institute, a Republican think tank—asking, "Is this really what we want our nation's top students to know about American history?"—identified 29 biased statements in the redesign, including:

Star Many Europeans developed a belief in white superiority to justify their subjugation of Africans and American Indians, using several different rationales.

Star The United States sought to "contain" Soviet-dominated communism through a variety of measures, including military engagements in Korea and Vietnam.

Star Activists began to question society's assumptions about gender and to call for social and economic equality for women and for gays and lesbians.

This is absolutely what I want every student to know when they leave my classroom. I want students to know that racism has justified horrible acts, from colonial slavery to Japanese internment. Students should be able to think critically about war, and question a cause that merits a horrific loss of life. In 2014, LGBT teen suicide rose and feminist Anita Sarkeesian received yet another death threat for speaking publicly—so yes, I desperately want students to know that the founding fathers aren't the only people capable of changing the world. I'm not anti-American or revisionist, and my status as a card-carrying Democrat doesn't influence how I teach. I teach about every subject on Heartland's list because it is the truth, and truth is important even when it isn't "exceptional."

I intend to teach the more "traditional" aspects of American history as well. My students know George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. They'll know of our victories as well as our failures. But it isn't my job to coerce students into "loving America." My job is to teach students how to think, to expose them to American heroes not on our currency, denied the chance to sign the Declaration of Independence because of their gender or their race. In preparing my students for the AP test, I hope I prepare them to study history as it is: a complex, evolving subject that cannot be reduced to a multiple-choice question. I hope to maintain high academic standards, but if my students leave my classroom fearing the truth and unable to explain why? Then I'll know my class has failed.


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