Michael Hiltzik brought my attention to a new education outrage, Republicans Throw a Conniption Over the Teaching of US History. Sadly, this one is particularly bad not because of the conservatives—I’m so used to anti-intellectualism on the right that it hardly registers. This one is terrible because of the total spinelessness of one very prominent educator.
The whole thing is about the new history outline for Advanced Placement classes issued by the College Board. It seems that retired teacher and AP test guide author Larry Krieger is unhappy because the outline doesn’t push his own personal view of American greatness. He is upset, for example, that Benjamin Franklin isn’t even mentioned in the outline. Can you imagine?! This is a historical figure that all American children have crammed down their throats from the first grade. What possible reason could the outline have for not mentioning him by name? I mean, other than the fact that students get college credit for AP courses and would be expected to have a pretty good understanding of both the man and his importance in the history of America?
What Krieger is really up to is clear in his reaction to this photograph by Jacob Riis of tenement conditions in New York in 1890:
Hiltzik describes the test question and Krieger’s objection:
One question asked is “Conditions like those shown in the image contributed most directly to which of the following?” The correct answer is, “An increase in Progressive reform activity.”
Kreiger comments, “That’s historically true but note that progressives are going to be the heroes in this narrative.”
There’s your bottom line. In the conservative educational world, historical truth will take you only so far. It’s the ideological narrative they’re concerned with, and if it doesn’t conform to their vision of an America invariably shining the light of freedom and plenty on the world, it must be “biased and inaccurate.”
All of this has led to the Republican National Committee passing a resolution calling the outline “biased and inaccurate” and asking for Congress to defund the College Board. But what is terrible is that the new College Board president, David Coleman, more or less caved as one would expect from the conservative stereotype of a liberal academic:
The board’s president, David Coleman, responded with a pusillanimous open letter praising the critics as “patriots who care deeply about what students learn” and bowing to the “principled confusion the new framework produced.” If he thinks this sort of soft-soaping will mollify the mob, he’s got another thing coming.
Coleman also notes that he joined the College Board “after the new US History framework was developed and released” (emphasis his), which is an odd way of standing up foursquare for years of work by one’s colleagues. He sounds a bit like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Duke of Plaza-Toro, who “when there was any fighting… led his regiment from behind.”
Thankfully, the teachers who actually wrote the outline are fighting back. Their open letter is the kind of sharp attack that is critical if we are not going to allow ever more knowledge to fall into the black hole of “He said—she said—who can possibly say?” reporting that has now engulfed climate science and constantly threatens evolution theory.
We are writing this letter to correct recent uninformed criticisms that have been made in the press about the AP US History Curriculum Framework. We are proud to have participated in this landmark project to improve the teaching of United States History. We hope that this new course will help train a generation of students to understand their nation’s history and to be active citizens who can apply their understanding of the past to their daily lives.
The motivation to redesign AP United States History came first and foremost from AP teachers, who repeatedly expressed frustration with the way they believed the AP US History course prevented them and their students from exploring in any depth the main events and documents of US history. Scholars of teaching and learning in history, and history teachers themselves, felt that the AP course provided too little guidance about what might be on the AP exam, causing them to rush their students in a quick march through a list of historical events. There were too few opportunities to understand the “why” of US history, and or to make its deeper meanings come alive to students…
Many of the comments we have heard about the framework reflect either a misunderstanding of US history or a very limited faith in history teachers’ command of their subject matter. The Curriculum Framework was written by and for AP teachers—individuals who were already experts in US history and its teaching. Based on feedback from other AP teachers outside the Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee, we did not think it necessary to specifically identify Martin Luther King, Jr, among the post-war “civil rights activists” mentioned in the framework. Any United States History course would of course include King as well as other major figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Dwight Eisenhower. These and many other figures of US history did not appear in the previous AP framework, either, yet teachers have always understood the need to teach them. Critics who believe we have omitted them from the course are misunderstanding our document, and we request that they examine the AP Practice Exam as evidence of our determination that AP students must be exposed to a rich and inclusive body of historical knowledge.
American politics is out of balance. On the right we have ideologues who see everything as a threat to their carefully crafted vision of the nation. That might be okay if it were balanced on the left with a bunch of ideologues who see everything as a threat to their carefully crafted vision of the nation. But the right is not so balanced. Instead, it is “balanced” by practical centrism. As a result of that, we run into these problems all the time where basic knowledge gained from science and other disciplines is attacked as bias precisely because it isn’t biased.
It is also possible that Larry Krieger is just using right wing outrage. As I noted above, he is a writer of test preparation material and he seems to own the company Insider Test Prep. So he could see the changes as threatening. On the other hand, nothing is so good for writers of educational materials as changes in standards. It allows used books to become far less valuable, thus increasing sales of new books. So, as Newsweek would tell you, “Who can possibly say?”