George Washington presiding over the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in a hand-colored engraving of a 19th-century illustration. (North Wind Picture Archives via AP)

Dozens of academics, calling themselves “Scholars Concerned About Advanced Placement History” have published an open letter opposing the College Board’s new framework for the AP U.S. History course, saying that it presents “a grave new risk” to the study of America’s past, in large part because it ignores American exceptionalism.

The College Board and other historians have defended the framework, which was written by history teachers and historians, since it was released in 2014 for the 2014-15 school year,  but the controversy has been renewed with the new letter that says the framework  promotes “a particular interpretation of American history” that “downplays American citizenship and American world leadership in favor of a more global and transnational perspective.” And the letter says that it is time for policymakers to explore alternatives to “the College Board’s current domination” of AP testing.

The letter was signed by historians and others from a wide range of schools including Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Princeton universities, as well Lynne Cheney,  former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the wife of former vice president Dick Cheney.

It was published by a group called the National Association of Scholars, which calls itself “a network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education.” The NAS said in a release that it did not write or sign the missive but was happy to publish it.

The framework came under criticism after it was released in 2014 by the College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program. Critics complained that the framework does not mention important American historical figures, such as Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King Jr., but focuses on some of the darker episodes in American history.

[Historian James McPherson defends new AP U.S. History framework]

Last year, the Republican National Committee said it “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” and Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon who is running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, 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.”

The College Board and the authors of the framework have said that the criticism is misguided because the framework is not not meant to include every historical figure and date but rather to set a broad structure that gives teachers space to develop their own lessons. The authors, in a public letter (see below), said the framework was initially revised last year to address complaints from AP teachers that the course had too much material that did not allow students to delve into any one subject at length or learn the “why” of history rather than simply the “what.”

Last year,  I asked renowned historian James McPherson of Princeton University what he thought of the framework. McPherson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1989 book “Battle Cry of Freedom” and is a former president of the American Historical Association,  said this:

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.

Here’s the text of the new letter opposing the 2014 APUSH [AP U.S. History] Framework, and after that is the framework itself:

The teaching of American history in our schools faces a grave new risk, from an unexpected source. Half a million students each year take the Advanced Placement (AP) exam in U.S. History. The framework for that exam has been dramatically changed, in ways certain to have negative consequences.

We wish to express our opposition to these modifications. The College Board’s 2014 Advanced Placement Examination shortchanges students by imposing on them an arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history. We favor instead a robust, vivid, and content-rich account of our unfolding national drama, warts and all, a history that is alert to all the ways we have disagreed and fallen short of our ideals, while emphasizing the ways that we remain one nation with common ideals and a shared story.

The Advanced Placement exam has become a fixture in American education since its introduction after the Second World War, and many colleges and universities award credits based on students’ AP scores. In fact, for many American students the AP test effectively has taken the place of the formerly required U.S. history survey course in colleges and universities, making its structure and contents a matter of even greater importance from the standpoint of civic education. Many of these students will never take another American history course. So it matters greatly what they learn in their last formal encounter with the subject.

Educators and the public have been willing to trust the College Board to strike a sensible balance among different approaches to the American past. Rather than issuing detailed guidelines, the College Board has in the past furnished a brief topical outline for teachers, leaving them free to choose what to emphasize. In addition, the previous AP U.S. History course featured a strong insistence on content, i.e., on the students’ acquisition of extensive factual knowledge of American history.

But with the new 2014 framework, the College Board has put forward a lengthy 134-page document which repudiates that earlier approach, centralizes control, deemphasizes content, and promotes a particular interpretation of American history. This interpretation downplays American citizenship and American world leadership in favor of a more global and transnational perspective. The College Board has long enjoyed an effective monopoly on advanced placement testing. The changes made in the new framework expose the danger in such a monopoly. The result smacks of an “official” account of the American past. Local, state, and federal policymakers may need to explore competitive alternatives to the College Board’s current domination of advanced-placement testing.

The new framework is organized around such abstractions as “identity,” “peopling,” “work, exchange, and technology,” and “human geography” while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution. Elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict. The new framework scrubs away all traces of what used to be the chief glory of historical writing—vivid and compelling narrative—and reduces history to an bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces. Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals. The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that self-consciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective.

There are notable political or ideological biases inherent in the 2014 framework, and certain structural innovations that will inevitably result in imbalance in the test, and bias in the course. Chief among these is the treatment of American national identity. The 2010 framework treated national identity, including “views of the American national character and ideas about American exceptionalism” as a central theme. But the 2014 framework makes a dramatic shift away from that emphasis, choosing instead to grant far more extensive attention to “how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic identities.” The new framework makes a shift from “identity” to “identities.” Indeed, the new framework is so populated with examples of American history as the conflict between social groups, and so inattentive to the sources of national unity and cohesion, that it is hard to see how students will gain any coherent idea of what those sources might be. This does them, and us, an immense disservice.

We believe that the study of history should expose our young students to vigorous debates about the nature of American exceptionalism, American identity, and America’s role in the world. Such debates are the warp and woof of historical understanding. We do not seek to reduce the education of our young to the inculcation of fairy tales, or of a simple, whitewashed, heroic, even hagiographical nationalist narrative. Instead, we support a course that fosters informed and reflective civic awareness, while providing a vivid sense of the grandeur and drama of its subject.

A formal education in American history serves young people best by equipping them for a life of deep and consequential membership in their own society. The College Board’s 2014 framework sadly neglects this essential civic purpose of education in history. We can, and must, do better.

– Scholars Concerned About Advanced Placement History

Signatories
**Affiliation for identification purposes only

John Agresto, former President, St. John’s College-Santa Fe, and former Deputy Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Patrick N. Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History, Emory University

Stephen H. Balch, Director of The Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, Texas Tech University, and Founder, National Association of Scholars

Herman J. Belz, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Maryland

Gerard V. Bradley, Professor of Law, University of Notre Dame

James W. Ceaser, Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics, University of Virginia

James Jay Carafano, Military Historian, and Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, E. W. Richardson Fellow, and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, Heritage Foundation

John “Chuck” Chalberg, Professor of History, Normandale College

Lynne Cheney, Former Chair, National Endowment for the Humanities

Bruce Cole, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History, Indiana University, former Chairman of National Endowment for the Humanities, and Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center

Patrick J. Deneen, David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies and Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Notre Dame

Robert Faulkner, Research Professor of Political Science, Boston College

John Fonte, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for American Common Culture, Hudson Institute

Richard Fonte, Former Director, We the People Project, National Endowment for the Humanities, Former President, Austin Community College

Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University, and Herbert W. Vaughan Senior Fellow, Witherspoon Institute

Charles Glenn, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Boston University, and Co-Chair, International Conference on School Choice and Reform 2015

Susan Hanssen, Associate Professor of History, University of Dallas

Victor Davis Hanson, Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow, Classics and Military History, The Hoover Institution, Stanford University

John Earl Haynes, 20th Century Political Historian, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Michael Holt, Langbourne M. Williams Professor Emeritus of American History, University of Virginia

Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History, Baylor University

Robert Davis Johnson, Professor of History, Brooklyn College, The City University of New York

Amy A. Kass, Sr. Lecturer Emerita, University of Chicago
Leon R. Kass, Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus, Committee on Social Thought, The University of Chicago, and Madden-Jewett Scholar, American Enterprise Institute

Charles Kesler, Dengler-Dykema Distinguished Professor of Government, Claremont McKenna College

Ralph Ketcham, Professor Emeritus of History, Public Affairs, and Political Science, Syracuse University, and Senior Research Associate, Campbell Public Affairs Institute

Joseph Kett, James Madison Professor Emeritus of History, University of Virginia

Harvey Klehr, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History, Emory University

Yuval Levin, Editor, National Affairs, and Hertog Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center

Gordon Lloyd, Robert and Katheryn Dockson Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University

Herb London, Professor Emeritus and former John M. Olin Professor of Humanities, New York University, and former President, Hudson Institute

Myron Magnet, Manhattan Institute, and Author of The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817

Joyce Malcolm, Patrick Henry Professor of Constitutional Law and the Second Amendment, George Mason University School of Law

Harvey Mansfield, William R. Kenan  Jr. Professor of Government, Harvard University

Peter Mansoor, Raymond E. Mason Jr. Chair in Military History, Ohio State University

George Marsden, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Notre Dame

Ted McAllister, Edward L. Gaylord Chair, and Associate Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University

Wilfred McClay, G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty, and Director of the Center for the History of Liberty, University of Oklahoma

Robert Merry, Historian, former Publishing Executive

Wilson D. Miscamble, Professor of History, University of Notre Dame

Joshua Mitchell, Professor of Government, Georgetown University

Paul D. Moreno, William and Berniece Grewcock Chair in Constitutional History, Hillsdale College

Mark Moyar, Senior Fellow, Joint Special Operations University, and Author of Triumph Forsaken

Johnathan O’Neill, Chair, Department of History, Georgia Southern University

Robert Paquette, Professor of History, Hamilton College

Ronald Radosh, Professor Emeritus of 20th Century US History, The City University of New York, and Hudson Institute

Paul Rahe, Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage, and Professor of History, Hillsdale College

Thomas Reeves, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Wisconsin-Parkside

Daniel Robinson, Fellow, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford

Diana Schaub, Professor of Political Science, Loyola University Maryland

Mark Smith, Carolina Distinguished Professor of History, University of South Carolina

James Stoner, Professor of Political Science, Louisiana State University

Sandra Stotsky, Professor Emerita of Education Reform, University of Arkansas

Stephan Thernstrom, Winthrop Professor Emeritus of History, Harvard University, and Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute

Jean M. Yarbrough, Gary M. Pendy Sr. Professor of Social Sciences, Bowdoin College

Donald Yerxa, former Director, The Historical Society, and Editor, Historically Speaking

Additional Signatories as of June 10, 2015
**Affiliation for identification purposes only

Michael Allen, Professor of History, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington, Tacoma

Elizabeth Altham, Instructor in AP U.S. History, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Academy, Rockford, Illinois

Douglas Ambrose, Professor of History, Hamilton College

Michael Barton, Professor of American Studies and Social Science, Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg

Fred Baumann, Professor of Political Science, Kenyon College

Christopher Beneke, Associate Professor of History, Bentley University

Jay Bergman, Professor of History, Central Connecticut State University

Suzanne Geissler Bowles, Professor of History and American Studies Minor Coordinator, William Paterson University

Kent Masterson Brown, President, Witnessing History, LLC

Richard Buitron, Adjunct Professor, San Antonio College

Jonathan Burack, President, Burack Educational Services

Michael Burlingame, Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies, History Department, University of Illinois at Springfield

Ashley Cruseturner, Professor of History, McLennan Community College

Paul du Quenoy, Associate Professor of History, American University of Beirut

William C. Dennis, Former Professor of American History, Denison University, and former President, Philadelphia Society

Nicholas Doom, Instructor in AP U.S. History and Social Studies, Anderson W. Clark Magnet High School, La Crescenta, California

John C. Eastman, Henry Salvatori Professor of Law and Community Service and Former Dean, Dale E. Fowler School of Law at Chapman University

John T. Fishel, Lecturer, International and Area Studies, College of International Studies, The University of Oklahoma, and Emeritus Professor

Matthew Franck, Director, William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution, Witherspoon Institute,

Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Radford University

Burton W. Folsom Jr., Charles F. Kline Chair in History and Management, Hillsdale College

Kevin Gutzman, Professor and Chair-elect of History, Western Connecticut State University

Don Hickey, Professor of History, Wayne State College

Kevin Jenkins, Associate Professor, Tift College of Education, Mercer University

Donald Kagan, Dean Emeritus, Yale College, and Sterling Professor of Classics and History, Yale University

Kevin Kijewski, Superintendent of Schools, Archdiocese of Denver, and Adjunct Professor of Education, University of Southern California Rossier School of Education

Robert C. Koons, Professor of Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin

Kirby Lehman, Former Superintendent, Jenks Public Schools

James W. Muller, Professor and Chair of Political Science, University of Alaska, Anchorage

William Nancarrow, Interim Dean of Faculty, Associate Professor of History, Curry College

Patrick Nolan, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of South Carolina

Ronald Pestritto, Graduate Dean and Professor of Politics and Charles and Lucia Shipley Chair in the American Constitution, Hillsdale College

Roger Ream, President, Fund for American Studies

Glenn Ricketts, Professor of Political Science, Raritan Valley Community College, Public Affairs Director, National Association of Scholars

Kevin Roberts, President, Wyoming Catholic College

David Schaefer, Professor of Political Science, College of the Holy Cross

Maimon Schwarzschild, Professor of Law, University of San Diego

Larry Schwiekart, Professor of History, University of Dayton

Colleen Sheehan, Professor of Political Science, Villanova University, Director, Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions, member, Pennsylvania State Board of Education

Meghan Slanina, AP U.S. History and AP U.S. Government instructor, Holy Name High School, Parma Heights, Ohio

Steven Smith, Research Associate Professor in Archeology and Anthropology, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology, University of South Carolina

Michael Uhlmann, Research Professor of American Politics, Claremont Graduate University

David M. Whalen, Provost and Professor of English, Hillsdale College

Steven E. Woodworth, Professor of History, Texas Christian University

If you would like to be considered as an additional signatory, please see instructions at www.nas.org/articles/open_letter_american_historians

Here’s the 2014 letter about the framework by its authors:

Letter Us History[1]

AP Us History Course and Exam Description[1]