I understand that it is supposed to be an advanced course, operating at the college level, under the assumption that this is not students’ first exposure to American history. As the authors of its framework note in an open letter, “The AP U.S. History course is an advanced, college-level course — not an introductory U.S. history course — and is not meant to be students’ first exposure to the fundamental narrative of U.S. history. Because countless states, districts, and schools have their own standards for U.S. history teaching, we did not want to usurp local control by prescribing a detailed national curriculum of people, places, and events. As a result, we created a framework, not a full curriculum, so that local decision makers and teachers could populate the course with content that is meaningful to them and that satisfies their state mandates.”
If the students learning AP U.S. History already know U.S. history, they will not have any problems. If, however, there are any gaps — well, there’s the rub.
So far the people in the anti-APUSH movement have complained, “How dare you not mention Martin Luther King or George Washington at any point in your 142-page framework!” and the people behind the framework have replied, “No, no, you don’t understand. We don’t mention ANYONE! It’s just a framework that you can fill in with facts of your own choosing!”
That’s to say, the framework lists everything you should learn about American history to get college credit — except, er, specific facts about American history.
I appreciate that this is how we do things now. This is the way courses work. We emphasize “critical thinking skills” and “approaches” and “concepts,” and we have put rote memorization behind us. Dates, names, places? Please. Google exists.
This is the product of something called Backward Design. Here’s how it’s described in “Getting to the Core of Literacy for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects,” a book put together by Vicky M. Giouroukakis and Maureen Connolly to assist teachers in meeting Common Core standards in these content areas (yes, I know the Common Core and AP are different, but the principle of Backward Design is the same):
“Many teachers initially think about their teaching — what they will teach and how — without considering what student outcomes they want at the end of their instruction. In other words, they are concerned with inputs rather than outputs first. For example, they select a topic (civil rights), then the text (Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail), followed by instructional methods (discussion and cooperative learning) and learning experiences (close reading and analysis of text, identification of rhetorical devices, and argument writing), to help students meet the state standard. In contrast, BD ensures that teachers identify first the standards that they want their students to meet, followed by student results called for by the standards, and then learning activities that will lead to the desired results.” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2001, pp. 7-8).
The College Board has been answering critics of the framework’s suggestions by making the case that any good teacher will know which facts to teach to fill the framework, which is why the framework did not mention them.
“When the new framework was first reviewed by AP U.S. History teachers,” the framework notes, “they indicated that it would be useful to provide examples for teaching some of the concepts. For most concepts, AP U.S. History teachers know exactly what figures, events, and sources they will focus on, but for others, they asked that the framework provide suggestions.” (bold mine)
But, well, how did those teachers know what figures and events to focus on? Because someone at some point taught them specific facts from the American past and said that those facts were worth knowing and other facts were less worth knowing — if only because they were more connected to the mass of facts around them. This incident inspired pamphlets and cartoons and protests; this one didn’t. Citing this one strengthens your argument more than citing that one does. In other words, it matters which facts you use to make your arguments.
The problem is not that we need to be nicer to the Founders, that we must insist they were angels who rode golden clouds to form cities on hills while falling short zero times. That’s not history. That’s hagiography. It’s not that we should not take new cases for beginning and ending historical periods into account, or give short shrift to minority experiences.
But is it worth making sure you know certain names and dates? Not just so you can use Paul Revere and John Adams as examples in your essay on how “The resulting independence movement was fueled by established colonial elites, as well as by grassroots movements that included newly mobilized laborers, artisans and women, and rested on arguments over the rights of British subjects, the rights of the individual, and the ideas of the Enlightenment” — but so you can move freely about arguments for the rest of your life? I think it is.
If you really want to argue with the College Board, don’t argue that AP U.S. History isn’t nice enough to America. Argue that which specific facts you use to teach U.S. history — even at an advanced level — isn’t something you can just handwave like this. As the state legislators are demonstrating when they try to craft their own requirements, which facts and documents you include and which ones you don’t makes a difference. Do you want speeches by Ronald Reagan and sermons by John Edwards, or speeches by Lyndon Johnson and poems by Walt Whitman? This choice is nontrivial. You’d think the AP would have some interest in making certain there’s a balanced diet of facts — not just laudatory, not just condemnatory, but somewhere in between, where history is.