A Flawed Framework for the AP U.S. History Curriculum

In a previous incarnation I was a professional historian, so I was intrigued by conservatives’ charge that the new AP History Framework for high school students has a leftist bias, depicting “a nation founded on oppression, privilege, racism, and heedless exploitation of the environment.” As it happens, a chief architect of the Framework is a former colleague of mine; in fact, I edited his first book. In a lengthy defense of the Framework, this gentleman makes these points (emphasis mine):

  • “At least as I teach my own introductory course . . . the goal is to produce students who understand that historical knowledge—whether of the American past or any other—depends on two absolute rules: first, that historians cannot make anything up; second, that they cannot leave anything out merely because it strikes them as inconvenient, embarrassing, or out of keeping with preconceived notions or conventional wisdom. . . .
  • “good history is that which offers both the most inclusive and the most coherent possible account of the past.
  • “My fellow members and I wanted to make the AP U.S. history course a more rigorous reflection of the current state of knowledge and practice in our discipline.”

My response:

  • Actually, historians today do leave out facts that are – to them at least – “inconvenient, embarrassing, or out of keeping with preconceived notions or conventional wisdom.” You won’t find many historians plainly stating that America’s capitalist economy, managed largely by acquisitive white males, reduced the poverty of millions of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America (that’s why they came). Or that an important growth driver was effective “exploitation” of America’s abundant natural resources.
  • I, too, favor “inclusive” history; I have read many of the excellent new books on the slave trade and slavery. But in a survey course one wants to teach students, “how we got where we are today,” which requires understanding the actions of successful elites. Too much “inclusiveness” can be sub-optimal.
  • Basing the AP Framework on the “current state of knowledge and practice in our discipline” sounds commonsensical, but is actually problematic. Professional historians — unlike, say, investors or journalists, for whom every day brings something new and different—have to keep ploughing the same old ground, yet find something original and interesting to write about. So they rotate from one hot topic to another. In the 1970s, the hot topics for historians of 18th century America were the New England village and Republicanism. Later it was “consumerism.” Now it is slavery and Indians. That’s fine, but it is far from clear that a survey course should be heavily tilted toward a particular topic just because it is the current focus of historical research.

Framework Fractures

The Framework has 200 separate historical “concepts,” so it is not difficult to quantify its priorities. Of the 200, 28 refer to Indians and 27 to slavery and race, versus only 5 to the creation of America’s “founding documents,” the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Only one “concept” discusses the actual drafting of the Constitution; that is clearly inadequate.

 

On ante-bellum immigration, students are told:

“Substantial numbers of new international migrants — who often lived in ethnic communities and retained their religion, language, and customs — entered the country prior to the Civil War, giving rise to a major, often violent nativist movement that was strongly anti-Catholic and aimed at limiting immigrants’ cultural influence and political and economic power.”

A more even-handed formulation: “Despite its Protestant roots, the U.S. was willing to receive millions of indigent Irish Catholic immigrants who – notwithstanding sometimes violent nativist resistance – fared much better in the U.S. than they would have by remaining in Ireland or moving to England.”

 

Regarding World War II, students are told,

“Wartime experiences, such as the internment of Japanese Americans, challenges to civil liberties, debates over race and segregation, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb raised questions about American values.”

and

“The United States and its allies achieved victory over the Axis powers through a combination of factors, including allied political and military power, industrial production, technological and scientific advances, and popular commitment to advancing democratic ideals.”

So here we have a rather anodyne statement that the U.S. and its allies won the War, and a denigration of that extraordinary achievement on the grounds that the War “raised questions about American values.” No mention of the 407,000 American troops killed, which by the way was four times the number of Japanese Americans interned. Destroying the Nazi and Japanese empires, and rebuilding both nations along democratic lines, affirmed American values.

 

Regarding Ronald Reagan and the Winning the Cold War:

“President Ronald Reagan, who initially rejected détente with increased defense spending, military action, and bellicose rhetoric, later developed a friendly relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, leading to arms reductions by both countries.”

Actually, it was Reagan’s military buildup, in the face of strenuous liberal opposition, that ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet Empire – not his “friendly relationship” with Gorbachev.

The Framework’s Not so Gilded Age

The Framework misconstrues the relationship between capitalism, economic growth, immigration and poverty reduction. Students are told:

“Following the Civil War, government subsidies for transportation and communications systems opened new markets in North America, while technological innovations and redesigned financial and management structures such as monopolies sought to maximize the exploitation of natural resources and a growing labor force.”

If I were grading this and in a good mood, I would still give it a “D.” There are at least three problems. First, “government subsidies” did not open new markets; people did – entrepreneurs and their employees, encouraged by subsidies. Second, monopolies are not “management structures;” they are market structures and were quite rare in the gilded age. Third, “maximize the exploitation of natural resources and a growing labor force” is tendentiously pejorative.   A “growing labor force” did not willingly cross the Atlantic in order to be “exploited.“

Next,

“The industrial workforce expanded through migration across national borders and internal migration, leading to a more diverse workforce, lower wages, and increase in child labor.”

Wages did not decline in the late 19th century; in real terms they rose 130% between 1865 and 1898. Living standards were boosted by a host of technological breakthroughs that go unmentioned in the Framework – telephony, electricity, elevators, phonographs, light bulbs, indoor plumbing, packaged foods, catalogue stores, interstate shipment of frozen meat, and (a few years later) autos and airplanes.

LBJ’s Not So Great Society

The Framework sidesteps the abject failure of Washington’s “War on Poverty,” obliquely noting that “public confidence and trust in government declined in the 1970s in the wake of economic challenges….” The accelerating inflation of the 1970s was more than a “challenge;” it was a protracted disaster for ordinary Americans engendered by the statist policies of LBJ, Nixon, and a Democratic Congress. Real median household income declined between 1969 and 1982 despite a huge increase in the number of working wives (female labor force participation rose from 42.7% to 52.6%). The Framework notes that “economic inequality increased after 1980” but ignores the broad prosperity engendered by the Reagan / Volcker program of monetary restraint, tax cuts, and deregulation; median household income rose 12% from 1982 to 1989.

Bottom Line

The product of a great deal of thoughtful effort, the Framework is well intentioned and a pretty good start. However, it inevitably reflects the scholarly priorities and political biases of professional historians and should be substantially revised to meet the needs of high school students who wish to take a college-level American history survey course.

Copyright Thomas Doerflinger 2015. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

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About tomdoerflinger

Thomas Doerflinger, PhD is a prominent observer of American capitalism – past, present and future. http://www.wallstreetandkstreet.com/?page_id=8
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