One of the main issues behind the recent student walk-outs in Jefferson County is a board proposal to review the Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) course. Julie Williams, one of the majority of conservative board members, suggested that a board-approved committee seek to ensure, “Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.” Likewise, in August, the Republican National Committee (RNC) criticized APUSH on the grounds that it “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” Curriculum Matters reports.
The upshot is that various critics—mostly conservative ones—regard APUSH as exhibiting certain leftist biases. Leaving aside for now the prudence (or lack thereof) of Williams’s proposal and of other proposals regarding APUSH, it is worth asking whether the course, in fact, exhibits leftist biases. The unfortunate fact is that it does, a fact that will become evident as we examine the main document describing the program as revised, the 2014 “Course and Exam Description” (CED hereafter). Some of these biases are more overt and obvious than others.
It should be noted at the outset that, despite its leftist biases, APUSH also establishes a framework for a potentially excellent education in U.S. history. Among other things, APUSH requires use of a “college-level U.S. history textbook, diverse primary sources, and secondary sources written by historians or scholars interpreting the past” (p. 7). Also, even though APUSH itself exhibits leftist biases, a given teacher working with the program will not necessarily teach the course in a way that brings those biases to bear in the classroom. (Likewise, if APUSH were unbiased, a given teacher might still teach it in such a way as to show the teacher’s bias.) APUSH establishes a framework for teaching history; it does not micromanage teachers in the classroom.
It should also be noted that criticisms that APUSH neglects to mention certain historical episodes and figures are off-base. As an example of such criticism, the RNC complains, “The framework excludes discussion of the U.S. military (no battles, commanders, or heroes) and omits many other individuals and events that greatly shaped our nation’s history (for example, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, [etc.]).” Such criticisms fail to notice that the purpose of the framework is to establish broad educational goals, not to micromanage teaching on an event-by-event basis. Whereas APUSH previously detailed twenty-eight different periods of history, APUSH as recently revised covers nine broader periods, ranging from 1491 to the present (see the College Board’s notes on the changes to APUSH). As the CED notes, “the outline often provides teachers with some ‘illustrative examples’ of specific historical events or figures” (p. 10); it does not seek to name all possible examples. Teachers are still supposed to teach—and students are still supposed to learn—important events and figures in American history, even if they are not mentioned by name in the CED.
But regardless of the strengths and benefits of APUSH, it remains the case that it exhibits leftist biases—some subtle and some not so subtle—aspects of which the remainder of this essay will explore.
Pushing for Environmentalism
An early example comes in a section discussing “historical causation.” The CED states, “Citing multiple contributing causes may . . . provide students with more compelling evidence to support larger investigations than focusing on a single cause. For example, teachers can explore the roots of the modern environmental movement in the Progressive Era and the New Deal, as well as debate underlying and proximate causes of environmental catastrophes arising from pesticide use and offshore oil drilling” (pp. 12–13).
This “example” is arguably an open invitation for teachers to engage in environmentalist propaganda in the classroom. Otherwise, why “debate” the causes of “environmental catastrophes,” with no mention of the fact that the Industrial Revolution—powered mostly by the burning of fossil fuels—lifted America to economic prominence and lifted billions of the world’s people out of poverty? Presumably, teachers could also “debate” such facts, but the CED leads teachers down one path and not the other.
That said, elsewhere the CED does discuss advances in industry and technology; for example, students are asked to “Explain how changes in transportation, technology, and the integration of the U.S. economy into world markets have influenced U.S. society since the Gilded Age” (p. 22). (Of course, the mere fact that the CED refers to a major industrial period of U.S. history as the “Gilded Age,” as many do, arguably constitutes a smear of the industrialists of that era.)
A positive note in this regard is that the CED discusses “natural and man-made environments” (p. 26), indicating that the course does not view “the environment” as pertaining exclusively to the non-human.
Emphasis on Group Identity
The first of the seven “Thematic Learning Objectives” presented is “Identity.” The CED states, “Students should be able to explain 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. Students should be able to explain how these subidentities have interacted with each other and with larger conceptions of American national identity” (p. 21).
Obviously in certain contexts it is perfectly reasonable to discuss the historical importance of such groups. For example, the women’s suffrage movement was largely a women’s movement, and the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was largely a black American movement.
However, the focus on group identity can also obscure people’s common humanity, their shared experiences, and—most importantly—their shared values and beliefs. Certainly America’s Founders (whatever their failings elsewhere) emphasized this shared humanity in recognizing that “all men are created equal” with respect to their rights, and Martin Luther King emphasized it when he asked that his children (and all people) “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The potential problem with APUSH is not that it discusses group identity, but that it seems to too heavily emphasize it.
Progressive History as Told by Progressives
Although much of the CED’s outline of history is unobjectionable (and some of it is quite good), its outline of the Progressive era from 1890–1945 squarely presents the period according to leftist mythology. For example, the CED blames the “growth and consolidation of large corporations” for “business cycle fluctuations [that] became increasingly severe” (p. 65). Put bluntly, the CED’s claim on that score is leftist economic nonsense. Government controls of the economy—especially government controls of the money supply—have been the major causes of business cycles. (For details, see the works of the Austrian economists or of Richard Salsman.)
In the same section, the CED claims, “The liberalism of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal drew on earlier progressive ideas and represented a multifaceted approach to both the causes and effects of the Great Depression, using government power to provide relief to the poor, stimulate recovery, and reform the American economy” (p. 66). This is the typical “Saint Franklin” version of the era as told by the left. A more accurate summary would be that the Progressive economic policies of Republican Herbert Hoover, in conjunction with Federal Reserve monetary controls, helped to initiate and worsen the Great Depression, then the Progressive economic policies of FDR helped worsen and prolong the Great Depression. Note the CED’s biased claim that FDR’s tax-and-spend policies served to “stimulate recovery”; in fact they did the opposite. (For details, see the works of Amity Shlaes or of Burton Folsom.)
If parents are looking for the history of the left as told by the left, APUSH amply accommodates.
At least the CED acknowledges that students may take a view of the era that doesn’t square with the Progressive line. Although a student might discuss the New Deal as “revolutionary in a positive way” (for example), a student also “might claim that government intervention in the New Deal was substantial but had negative effects” (p. 118). So at least the CED allows some room for debate of the relevant issues.
I’ll end by discussing an aspect of APUSH that I think is fairly well done: its coverage of the American Revolution. Although arguably the coverage of the Revolutionary era is far too brief—the main discussion of the “colonial independence movement” covers only a page and a half of a fifty-page outline—at least that coverage deals with the fundamental issues at stake. In particular, APUSH acknowledges that the “independence movement . . . rested on arguments over the rights of British subjects, the rights of the individual, and the ideas of the Enlightenment” (p. 42).
On the whole, APUSH represents one of the better history courses in America’s schools, and, if a parent of a student in a Jefferson County high school asked for my opinion, I would suggest that the student seriously consider taking the course. But both parents and students should be aware that in some respects the course does push teachers and students in a particular direction: toward the left. But that’s nothing that some outside reading and discussion can’t cure.
Colorado blogger and author Ari Armstrong writes at AriArmstrong.com