With the new framework for the Advanced Placement U.S. History course under attack by critics who have claimed that it isn’t patriotic enough and even, perhaps, un-American, I decided to ask historian James McPherson for a considered opinion.
This is the first year that AP U.S. history teachers are using the new framework, created by history educators to address concerns among many teachers in the subject that the course was packed with information but allowed for no time to dive deep into any single subject. Trevor Packer, the head of the College Board’s Advanced Placement program, told my colleague Jay Mathews that a survey of teachers in the subject found that 72 percent disliked “the vagueness of the five-page course outline provided by the AP program.” A letter from the authors said in part:
The motivation to redesign AP United States History came first and foremost from AP teachers, who repeatedly expressed frustration with the way they believed the AP U.S. History course prevented them and their students from exploring in any depth the main events and documents of U.S. history. Scholars of teaching and learning in history, and history teachers themselves, felt that the AP course provided too little guidance about what might be on the AP exam, causing them to rush their students in a quick march through a list of historical events. There were too few opportunities to understand the “why” of U.S. history, and or to make its deeper meanings come alive to students.
The new framework came under attack over the summer by critics, including the Republican National Committee, which passed a resolution in August accusing the document of reflecting “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” Critics insisted that the framework gives short shrift to America’s Founding Fathers and dwells on some of the darker episodes in U.S. history. Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon who has said he may run for president as a Republican in 2016, actually said — using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State militant group — that “most people” who complete the course would then be “ready to sign up for ISIS.” (He really said that.)
But there has been pushback, too. The College Board has called the critics off-base, as have history teachers and others. When a member of the Board of Education in Jefferson County, Colo., decided to form a committee to review the framework, students, parents and teachers began weeks of protests. The board agreed to allow parents and students to have a voice in the review but rejected calls to stop the review.
There has been so much controversy over the framework that it seemed like a good idea to ask a well-respected historian to comment on the issue, so I asked McPherson, one of the best-known historians in the world, for his view. He is a history professor emeritus at Princeton University and won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1989 book “Battle Cry of Freedom.” In 2003, he was the president of the American Historical Association.
I asked him whether he was aware of the controversy and, if so, what he thought about it. Here, with his permission, is what he wrote in an e-mail:
I am somewhat familiar with the controversy, and my sentiments are entirely on the side of the AP History framework. It was put together by teachers and historians who have been working on it for years. It is a sound framework that will help teachers improve the teaching of AP history. The criticism of it seems motivated mainly by right-wing politics.