History, American Democracy, and the AP Test Controversy

Wilfred McClay
Senior Editor, Claremont Review of Books

Wilfred McClayWilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Professor in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. He has also taught at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Tulane University, Georgetown University, and Pepperdine University, and he served for eleven years as a member of the National Council on the Humanities. His books include The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, The Student’s Guide to U.S. History, and Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past. He received his Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University.

It is at precisely this point that the recent controversy over the new Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History framework comes into play. Not that the College Board—the private New York-based organization that administers the advanced placement exam to American high school students—openly espouses such a radical agenda. Instead, the College Board argues that its 2014 revision of the AP exam has sought to make the exam more perfectly reflect the contents of a typical collegiate introductory survey course in American history. On the surface this would seem to make sense, since the avowed purpose of AP is to provide a shortcut to college-level credit. But it is also a huge problem, since, as Thomas Bender himself has observed, the introductory survey course, once the glorious entryway to a college history department, is now its neglected and unwanted stepchild.

The Advanced Placement exam has become a fixture in American education since it was introduced in the years immediately after the Second World War, and many colleges and universities in the U.S. (and more than 20 other countries) grant credits or advanced placement based on students’ AP test scores. For many American students, the AP test has in effect taken the place of the required U.S. history survey course in colleges and universities. This makes its structure and makeup a matter of even greater importance from the standpoint of civic education, since many of these students will never take another American history course. The pervasive use of the test has had many sources, but surely its widespread adoption is testimony to the general trust that has so far been reposed in the test. The test has retained this trust by striking a sensible balance between and among different approaches to the American past. In addition, rather than issuing detailed guidelines, the College Board until very recently has made do with a brief five-page document outlining the test’s general framework for the use of teachers, and leaving to them the distribution of their teaching emphases. This was a reasonable, respectful, and workable arrangement.

In this light, the 134-page framework in the 2014 iteration of the test represents a radical change and a repudiation of that earlier approach. It represents a lurch in the direction of more centralized control, as well as an expression of a distinct agenda—an agenda that downplays comprehensive content knowledge in favor of interpretive finesse, and that seeks to deemphasize American citizenship and American world leadership in favor of a more global and transnational perspective. The new framework is organized around such opaque and abstract concepts as “identity,” “peopling,” and “human geography.” It gives only the most cursory attention to traditional subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s fundamental political institutions, notably the Constitution, and the narrative accounting of political events, such as elections, wars, and diplomacy.

Various critics have noted the political and ideological biases inherent in the 2014 framework, as well as structural innovations that will result in imbalance in the test and bias in the course. Frankly, the language of the framework is sufficiently murky that such charges might be overstated. But the same cannot be said about the changes in 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. The 2014 framework grants 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 change is very clear: the new framework represents a shift from national identity to subcultural 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 all Americans, an immense disservice. Instead of combating fracture, it embraces it.

If this framework is permitted to take hold, the new version of the test will effectively marginalize traditional 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 decenter American history. Is this the right way to prepare young people for American citizenship? How can we call forth the acts of sacrifice that our democracy needs, not only on the battlefield but also in our daily lives—the acts of dedication to the common good that are at the heart of civilized life—without training up citizens who know about and appreciate that democracy, care about the common good, and feel themselves a part of their nation’s community of memory? How can we expect our citizens to grapple intelligently with enduring national debates—such as over the role of the U.S. Constitution, or about the reasons for the separation of powers and limited government—if they know nothing of the long trail of those particular debates, and are instead taught to translate them into the one-size-fits-all language of the global and transnational?