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How conservatives forced changes to AP US history to make it more "pro-American"

An AP US History teacher in Colorado works with students in October 2014.
An AP US History teacher in Colorado works with students in October 2014.
Andy Cross/Denver Post via 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.

It's hard to understate how much conservatives hated last year's new framework for AP US History. The Republican National Committee condemned it. An Oklahoma legislator tried to ban it. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said its negative presentation of American history would inspire students to want to join ISIS.

Now, after nearly a year of uproar, the College Board, the group that writes the AP exam, has made major changes to the framework — and it's won over conservatives, in part by putting less emphasis on racism.

The earlier frameworks, before the 2014 version, had been a long list of events in American history. The goal of last year's framework was to replace that with a more coherent, specific narrative of American history, framed by a few central questions. The new version has abandoned part of that sweeping narrative, getting more specific in some areas and toning down some of its most stark historical judgments.

But when it comes to race, the framework has become more general and vague. The biggest political change from the old version to the new isn't a more positive framing of Ronald Reagan's accomplishments, although that's an alteration that conservatives have praised. It's that it omits some references to race and racism throughout American history.

What this year's framework changed from the controversial version

One of the reasons the old framework proved so controversial was that its introduction, a series of framing questions followed by specific learning objectives for students, offered a coherent, complex narrative of American history.

Conservatives argued that this narrative was a one-sided version of history that focused too much on race and gender, downplayed the moral dimensions of World War II, and framed Lyndon B. Johnson much more positively than Ronald Reagan.

Some of the changes address these concerns simply by getting more specific. Rather than portraying the progressive movement of the early 20th century as a vague mass of crusaders for social justice and democracy, the new framework notes divisions among reformers over issues like Southern segregation and the role technical experts should play in government. The framework also goes into much more detail about World War II, from military strategy to Americans' perceptions of the war's moral dimensions.

The biggest shift in tone, however, comes at the beginning. The overarching questions about how American history fits together are gone; the learning objectives have become much more vague, applicable to the history of nearly any country.

Where the old framework said that students should have to "analyze ways that philosophical, moral, and scientific ideas were used to defend and challenge the dominant economic and social order in the 19th and 20th centuries," the new framework says only that they should "explain how artistic, philosophical, and scientific ideas have developed and shaped society and institutions."

The most detailed part of the framework, which list the events, ideas, and concepts students should understand from each period of American history, didn't change nearly as much. Descriptions of the Civil War and Reconstruction, perhaps the most politically divisive era to interpret in American history, are almost identical in the old version and the new.

Still, in places the new version is less stark. While the framework keeps references to violence and epidemics as Europeans conquered North America, it now also frames some conflicts as "mutual misunderstandings."

The 2014 framework described slavery in the Colonial era this way: "Reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority, the British system enslaved black people in perpetuity, altered African gender and kinship relationships in the colonies, and was one factor that led the British colonists into violent confrontations with native peoples."

The new version limits this to the Southern Colonies and omits the reference to conflicts with American Indians — which reads as a less sweeping verdict on the ills of British colonial slavery.

The big change: how white Americans' ideology is portrayed

The biggest difference between the old framework and the new one is that the new version spends much less time on white Americans' beliefs about racial and cultural superiority.

Two words — "racist" and "xenophobia" — have been omitted entirely. (The new framework does occasionally refer to "racial doctrines" or "racial theories.")

In some places, the new framework replaces references to racially motivated beliefs, and the social systems that depended upon those beliefs, with more general statements about American culture and institutions.

The 2014 version described 19th-century Manifest Destiny like this: "The idea of Manifest Destiny, which asserted US power in the Western Hemisphere and supported US expansion westward, was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority."

The new version skirts that debate by not defining Manifest Destiny as an ideology at all: "Popular enthusiasm for US expansion, bolstered by economic and security interests, resulted in the acquisition of new territories, substantial migration westward, and new overseas initiatives. … Advocates of annexing western lands argued that Manifest Destiny and the superiority of American institutions compelled the United States to expand its borders westward to the Pacific Ocean."

It's a slight change. But the effect is to make westward expansion seem logical and inevitable. White Americans, in the College Board's new version, don't have self-justifying ideologies, although they might have self-interest.

And they often don't have a racial identity, either: They're not described as "white" at all. The old framework specified more than a dozen times that it was talking about "white Americans," "white citizens," "white settlers," "white women," and so on. The new framework cuts the number of references to whiteness as a race in half. "Whites living on the frontier" become "frontier settlers"; "continuing white resistance" to desegregation becomes "continuing resistance."

"Many white Americans in the South asserted their regional identity through pride in the institution of slavery, insisting that the federal government should defend that institution," the old version read. The new version deletes those explicit references to identity. Instead, it points out that most Southerners did not own slaves, and slavery was seen as "part of the Southern way of life."

Why getting rid of references to racism is political

Some of these changes might just be to streamline the framework. The new version is considerably shorter. Students capable of college-level work can probably figure out on their own that the Americans resisting desegregation were white, and if they don't, their teachers will almost certainly mention it.

But the changes can also be interpreted another way: as returning to the idea that Americans are, by default, white unless otherwise specified. Even at the college level, discussing whiteness as a race can be controversial.

Given that more than half of public school students are now nonwhite, omitting "white" as a modifier — particularly when talking about the negative side of American history — matters.

The old College Board framework was a version of American history in which many Americans were explicitly racist, and where their motivations and beliefs would alienate many of today's young people, since they were explicitly excluded from those motivations. It's a narrative that invites criticism of the beliefs and judgments of the past.

That's what conservatives' real issue with the earlier version was: that it presented American history as riven with racially motivated hatred. And that's why they've praised the new version as emphasizing "our shared history — with racial divides and gender politics presented as one part of that larger story," as Frederick M. Hess and Max Eden wrote in National Review.

The new version often de-emphasizes whiteness as a race. Instead, it makes vague references to "institutions," "culture," and a "way of life." These are motivations and beliefs that today's students could see as including them, too. But at a time when there's more attention than ever to the historical legacies of racism, the College Board has gone in the other direction.

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