KC Johnson

A while back, I wrote a series here at Minding the Campus on the transformation of U.S. history in higher education. In a virtually unprecedented development, the last 10-20 years have featured a conscious decision to restrict, rather than expand, the range of knowledge about U.S. history that college students would receive. Elite departments (and, since they train most Ph.D. degrees, through them other schools’ departments) have pushed the discipline to an overpowering emphasis on themes of race, class, and gender, while working to squeeze out such “traditional” fields as political, diplomatic, constitutional, and military. On top of that, many of these “traditional” fields have been “re-visioned” to orient themselves around themes of race, class, or gender, so that students’ only encounter to a diplomatic historian might be someone whose scholarship focuses on gendered language by U.S. policymakers or social activism by African-American groups in Memphis.

All that said, one important bulwark has existed to this contraction of historical knowledge: high school history curricula. Unlike the college curricula, in which trustees and administrators serve as the only viable checks and balances against the race/class/gender triumvirate, high school curricula is formed collaboratively—between state education administrators, faculty, and members of the public. These packages all ensure that students learn about themes of race, class, and gender, but also that they are exposed to presidencies, key military conflicts, court cases, and developments on U.S. foreign policy. As a result, sadly, high school U.S. history curricula tend to be far more diverse and comprehensive than what students encounter on most college campuses.

Technically, no relationship exists between high school and college history curricula. But practically, there’s a close connection: most states either require or encourage (through financial incentives) starting social studies teachers to obtain M.A. degrees in history. Colleges get more tuition money; the teachers get more knowledge to impart to their own students. But the expectation is that the student-teachers will experience courses that include material they use in school. An exclusive diet of race, class, and gender will not do.

AP Framework

That bulwark, however, appears to be crumbling. In a development critiqued by NAS’ Peter Wood, and also strongly criticized by Stanley Kurtz, the College Board (which coordinates AP classes, but does not answer to state education officials) has issued what Kurtz correctly termed “a new and unprecedentedly detailed ‘Framework’ for its AP U.S. History exam.” Unsurprisingly, the American Historical Association—a race/class/gender-oriented institution that represents a race/class/gender-oriented field—defended the new framework, arguing that “the new framework is not a set of instructions or dictates for teachers.” Given that the framework itself asserts that it intends to help the “teacher to prioritize among the possible topics to cover across the scope of U.S. history,” the AHA’s disclaimer rings hollow.

Related: Making Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin Disappear

Two powerful themes emerge from the guidance document. First, the College Board wants to emphasize what it terms “historical thinking skills.” (The words “skill” or “skills” appear 136 times in the report.) Second, and as Kurtz notes, the report seems to build on themes of “internationalizing” U.S. history most associated with NYU historian Thomas Bender.

I’ve written about Bender’s efforts previously. He has constructed a series of straw men (U.S. historians don’t pay attention to what their international counterparts write, even though no evidence exists this is the case; U.S. survey courses don’t take into account international developments, even though, again, there’s no evidence here) to bolster his call for incorporating American history into a “global context.” What’s the attractiveness of this approach? According to Bender, in recent years “some of the most innovative and exciting scholarship in American history has been framed in ways that do not necessarily tie it to the nation-state—work on gender, migrations, diasporas, class, race, ethnicity, and other areas of social history.” In short: for its advocates, “global context” is nothing more than wordplay to justify the field’s current race/class/gender dominance.

Skills & Content

The AP Framework contains an “overview” listing two principal goals: (1) “historical thinking skills”; and (2) “thematic learning objectives,” which in turn loops back to item (1), since the guidelines state that “students should use a range of historical thinking skills to investigate the thematic learning objectives.” In so doing, the Board affirms its desire to relieve teachers “from the pressure to cover an unlimited amount of content.” Since the AP never required covering an “unlimited” amount of content, claiming such pressure seems misplaced, even disingenuous.

Authors of the AP report, of course, know this. But the jargon-laden framing can be useful in holding off criticism from politicians and the media: who, after all, can object to teaching students “skills”?

The report’s problem comes in its prioritization of “skills” over meaningful content. This is odd for a course that ends in a written, content-based exam. It’s also odd given that high school students enter the class knowing relatively little about American history: it’s rather difficult to interpret documents from, say, the constitutional ratification debates if the students never have learned about the necessary context during the Articles of Confederation and Constitutional Convention.

The report’s authors don’t seem to have any problem with this issue, however, blithely commenting, “Because teachers need not cover all possible facts and details of U.S. history [are the report’s authors falsely claiming that teachers once did so?], they should have more time to develop students’ understanding of the learning objectives and use of historical thinking skills.” AP students, it seems, can utilize their “historical thinking skills” on the ratification documents even if the students don’t, in fact, know much or anything about the ratification itself.

Skills & Pedagogy

Finally, the stress on “skills” provides a backdoor manner to downplay the more “traditional” themes generally embraced by state departments of education. To the extent that the report provides content guidance, it comes in identification of seven “themes”: Identity; Work, exchange, and technology; Peopling; Politics and power; America in the world; Environment and geography—physical and human; Ideas, beliefs, and culture. Each of these are vague; only the fourth and fifth themes could be deemed “traditional,” and even these themes can be “re-visioned” as desired.

As to how the “skill” component can play out, consider skill 7: “Appropriate use of relevant historical evidence,” in which students must analyze historical documents “for one or more of the following: audience, purpose, point of view, format, argument, limitations, and context germane to the historical evidence considered.” Note the absence of any content necessary to implement the “skill”: students could fulfill the AP requirement by analyzing one of the Federalist Papers, or they could do so by examining excerpts from the diary of a late 19th century Indiana housewife. Both are historical documents; both apply to one of the seven AP “themes” (identity for the diary, politics and power for the Federalist Papers).

The report makes this “anything-goes” content approach clear, by color-coordinating items—helpfully shielded off in gray boxes—that the report authors suggest might illustrate the desired themes, but which the AP “will not require students to be familiar with the information contained in the gray boxes.”

Some items included in gray boxes: John Locke, the 1660 Navigation Acts, the founding of Pennsylvania, the Proclamation of 1763, the Stamp Act, the Sons of Liberty, Adam Smith, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, Shays’ Rebellion, McCulloch v. Maryland, the Monroe Doctrine, John C. Calhoun, Gettysburg, the March to the Sea, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Social Security Act, the Atlantic Charter, the Manhattan Project, Thurgood Marshall, Miranda v. Arizona, and Watergate.

Again: the AP “will not require students to be familiar with the information contained in the gray boxes.”

These foundational items from U.S. history, it seems, carry no more weight on future AP exams than other “gray box” items that teachers can use to illustrate the report’s themes but that students won’t be specifically required to know, such as the Chicakasaw Wars, the march of the Paxton Boys, the architecture of Spanish missions, the Hudson River School, David Walker, Lydia Maria Child, Mariano Vallejo, the Sierra Club, Las Gorras Blancas, the Ghost Dance Movement, Florence Kelley, Edward Hopper, Luisa Moreno, and rock and roll music.

If “skills,” in short, are the focus, content becomes secondary.

Editors' note: this post originally appeared on the Manhattan Institute's Minding The Campus Blog.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.