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How AP History became so controversial that Oklahoma is trying to ban it

Students pledge allegiance to the flag. The role of patriotism in history classes is an old debate.
Students pledge allegiance to the flag. The role of patriotism in history classes is an old debate.
Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The Oklahoma state legislator who tried to ban AP US History is rewriting the bill after it kicked off a nationwide controversy. But the bill — which a committee in Oklahoma's statehouse voted to approve last week — isn't likely to be the last fight over the new guidelines for what students should learn in the college-level class.

In 2014, the College Board reworked the guidance it gives teachers on what to teach to prepare for the crucial year-end history test for college credit. The revamped framework replaced a laundry list of topics with more specifics about what students should learn. Critics argue the course dwells too much on the negative side of American history.

The Republican National Committee condemned changes to the framework for the class, as did National Review. Conservative commentator Ben Carson said it will lead kids to want to join ISIS. In Colorado, a school board proposed reviewing the district's AP history curriculum to ensure that it promoted patriotism, not "civil disorder."

The College Board says it's a much-needed overhaul to give teachers more direction, that it's not intended to downplay the Founding Fathers or the Constitution, and that it reflects current historical scholarship.

Advanced Placement US history is something of a niche issue. About 300,000 students sat for the AP US History exam this year — roughly equivalent to 10 percent of all graduating high school seniors. But the controversy is about far more than what top students in an accelerated class will learn. It's the latest revival of a century-long argument not just about what students should learn in history class, but about why we teach history at all.

What the AP changed about American History classes

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Students study in an AP history class at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, Colorado, in 2011. (Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post via Getty Images)

Until this year, AP US History teachers were provided with a list of 12 themes and 28 topics, from pre-Columbian societies to the post-Cold War World, to prepare students for the College Board's end-of-year exam. The list looks like a table of contents in a textbook, starting with "Early inhabitants of the Americas" and proceeding through "Early U.S. imperialism: the Mexican War" to "The First World War at home and abroad," and so on.

The new framework, on the other hand, goes into much more detail. While the old guidance said that students should study Spanish, French, and British colonization in the Americas, the new framework is explicit about what they should learn: "The arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere in the 15th and 16th centuries triggered extensive demographic and social changes on both sides of the Atlantic," for example.

Prominent historical figures, such as George Washington, and events, including the Holocaust, aren't mentioned in the framework. This drew outrage from conservatives who accused the College Board of writing the nation's founders out of history and downplaying the moral dimensions of World War II.

"The framework presents a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history," the Republican National Committee said in its resolution opposing the new framework and requesting a Congressional investigation.

Trevor Packer, a senior vice president of College Board, said in an open letter that omitting important people or events was never the intent; teachers are responsible for choosing the people, documents, and events they teach about, regardless of whether they're mentioned in the framework. The College Board updated the framework in October to say so more explicitly.

But conservatives' broader objections remain: Commentator Ben Carson to say the new class will make students hate American and want to "sign up for ISIS."

Before the issue came up in the Oklahoma state legislature, a school board in Jefferson County, Colorado, proposed reviewing the district's AP History curriculum to ensure it does not promote  "civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law" — a standard that would make it difficult to teach about the American Revolution or the Civil Rights Movement.

Historians defend the new framework as better reflecting the "complex, unsettling, provocative and compelling" truths of US History, and at incorporating more current historical scholarship. During the decades that the College Board used the old list of events, interpretations of those events shifted; some teachers probably shifted their curriculum as well, but others did not.

For some conservatives, the issue is not with whether the AP framework reflects the consensus among history professors – it's with the historical consensus itself. The ideal introductory college-level history class, says Frederick Hess, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, would be "eyes-open about the American story, comfortable discussion the warts and the tensions, but not shying away from the things that are impressive or good or distinctive about the American narrative."

"It feels to someone like me that the deck has been stacked," Hess says, arguing that the framework dwells on the negative consequences of free enterprise rather than its advantages, and that its treatment of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson is far more favorable than its treatment of Ronald Reagan.

History has been controversial for decades

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Lynne Cheney opposed an effort to establish national history standards in the 1990s. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The College Board has responded to criticism, updating the framework to explain how teachers should use it, requesting public feedback on the standards, and pledging to continue to revise them.

Still, to draw a lesson from history, the furor is likely to last beyond the conflict over a specific AP class. Conflicts about how to teach American history began not long after schools started teaching the subject in the first place.

After the Civil War, Southern states sought out textbooks that downplayed the role of slavery and glorified Confederate veterans; some even passed laws that required a "fair and impartial" retelling of the "war between the states." The United Daughters of the Confederacy urged teachers to reject books that glorified Abraham Lincoln or depicted slaveholders mistreated their slaves.

The 1920s saw an outbreak of panic that American history textbooks were too friendly to the British when they recounted the Revolutionary War, charges that eventually played a role in a Chicago mayoral election. In the 1930s, another popular textbook author, Harold Rugg, was criticized as a Communist because his books included criticism of laissez-faire economics and questioned whether Europeans were ethical in their dealings with American Indians.

The controversy quieted down in the second half of the 20th century. But it revived with a vengeance in the 1990s with the attempt to create national standards for studying history. Conservatives derided the standards as "grim and gloomy," too "politically correct," overly focused on the wrongs of the American past. (Sound familiar?) That effort collapsed.

Since then, the most politically controversial class has typically been science, where state boards of education fought about teaching evolution and global warming. But the AP US History controversy is a reminder that historic truths can be just as controversial as scientific ones, and that what students learn about the past can be as inflammatory as what they learn about the present.