by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
University of Oklahoma history professor (and former John Locke Foundation Headliner) Wilfred McClay shares his concerns about the recent Advanced Placement U.S. history controversy for the latest issue of Hillsdale College’s Imprimis.
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.