For the second time in two years, the College Board has re-written history.
Debates over the curriculum erupted fall of 2014 over changes the company, which is responsible for Advanced Placement high school courses throughout the country, had penciled in about how United States History should be taught. Some critics argued that the revisions portrayed the U.S. negatively, and some felt they reflected a liberal bias.
Several of the loudest criticisms came from Colorado. In late 2014, a Jefferson County School Board member proposed forming a committee to review the changes to the curriculum – known as the “revised edition” – and proposed reviewing the curriculum, hoping to ensure that the course promoted patriotism and “respect for authority.” However, by February of 2015, amid a backlash from teachers, parents and students who staged massive walk-outs, the JeffCo board dropped the issue.
But the push for a curriculum change garnered national attention – including the attention of the Republican National Committee, which issued a resolution claiming that the AP United States History curriculum “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”
Among the chorus of critics was Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who suggested that the 2014 framework would make students “ready to sign up for ISIS.” Fundamentally, both Carson and the RNC were concerned that the curriculum placed too heavy an emphasis on negative facets of American history, from Manifest Destiny to the Japanese internment camps.
The College Board initially responded by defending the 2014 changes, but eventually capitulated. After enduring months of backlash, it released a new edition – known as the “2015 edition” – this July.
I am a senior at Denver East High School, and a student in the first class to be taught the new AP United States History curriculum. My school has required me to buy the revised $30 edition of the textbook, and teachers have had to plan new lessons that teach the updated curriculum. What I learn this year likely will differ from what my peers – many of whom took the class as juniors – learned last year.
Whereas students who took the class last year learned about the World War II-era atomic bomb, I’ll learn about the war with greater emphasis on America’s fight for global freedom – a side of history that’s much more pleasant than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which had combined death tolls exceeding 200,000.
Whereas students learned last year that Manifest Destiny – the belief that it was Anglo-Saxon America’s providential right to expand westward – was built on a belief in American cultural superiority, I’ll be taught that it was mainly a matter of natural resources.
And rather than learning that the Cold War ended due to multilateral diplomacy and “significant arms reductions [on both sides],” I’ll be taught that the war ended thanks to “Reagan’s diplomatic initiatives” – an assessment that recognizes only American efforts.
The newly revised course will emphasize American military victories, encourage “national identity” and endorse free enterprise. What’s more, the term “slavery” is used significantly less in the revised class reading than in the old text.
Opponents of these revisions claim that the changes intend to erase negative moments from American history – and, to some, this erasure amounts to full-on censorship.
To Molly Culhane, an East senior who took AP U.S. History last year, these changes diminish the course’s value.
“The United States was founded on rebellion and questioning authority. That is one of the things that ties us together as an American people,” she said.
Culhane thinks controversial moments in American history are crucial in shaping our national identity.
“For me, having studied American history, patriotism doesn’t come from the idea that this county is perfect, because it never has been perfect. Patriotism comes from the pride of being part of a great American tradition: improvement,” she said.
As some critics see it, the motivation behind the revisions is unsettling. Just as opponents of the 2014 edition felt it minimized America’s strengths, those who oppose the 2015 revisions say it minimizes the country’s historical weaknesses.
“[The new framework] is too exceptionalist,” says Alexander Vela, a senior at Woodland Park High School who took the AP U.S. History last year. Vela now serves as a teaching assistant for the class.
David Levin, a senior at Littleton High School, understands that “The curriculum attempts to find a middle ground.” However, that’s not to say he agrees with the changes.
“It’s almost as if curriculum designers think that less attention on controversial issues will avoid conflict. That approach is problematic in itself,” Levin said.
Despite lots of criticism, the revised curriculum has some support.
Wheat Ridge High School teacher Stephanie Rossi – who has been teaching AP U.S. History for 15 years – says the latest changes were inevitable. She sees the recent revision blitz as a natural step in keeping curricula up-to-date. Rossi feels that teachers have an ethical responsibility to update courses as new scholarship becomes available – and believes that, in revising the AP U.S. History curriculum, the College Board has done just that.
“Change to the curriculum just uplifted certain content that people didn’t think was emphasized enough,” she said.
Though Rossi says the changes were in order, she disagrees with the motivation that drove them. To her, concern over the 2014 revisions was rooted in misunderstanding and fear. As she sees it, judging a history course curriculum as too patriotic – or not patriotic enough – is reductive.
“When I teach American history, I don’t teach it as a positive or negative sum game. I teach it as a collection of human stories… because it’s a human experience. It’s a collection of historical events that have both positive and negative consequences.”
Painting by John Trumbull