Each year, more than 450,000 students take the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam (lovingly – maybe disparagingly – referred to as “APUSH” by students).
It is the second most popular AP exam. In recent months, however, The College Board, the company that administers the test, has found itself at the forefront of a controversy about history, education, and patriotism.
This controversy offers insight into the politicized nature of history education and underscores the need to prioritize honesty in the education of the youth of our nation.
Last year, the College Board released a new framework for the APUSH course designed to deemphasize memorization of dates and facts while encouraging students to focus on overarching themes and debate. Topics like racism, territorial expansion, and civil rights and disobedience were emphasized.
Well, if the College Board’s goal with the new curriculum was to inspire debate and controversy…boy, did they get what they asked for!
The response from the Right was swift and scathing. Oklahoma legislators voted to cut funding to APUSH courses. Lawmakers in other states seemed poised to make similar cuts and bans. The Republican National Committee issued a resolution denouncing the curriculum while Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson commented, “Most people, when they finish that course, would be ready to go sign up for ISIS!”
In response, earlier this year, the College Board released yet another iteration of their framework, in an attempt to appease critics and maintain their control over history education across the country.
For example, instead of learning the introduction of new weapons and alcohol “helped increase the intensity and destructiveness of American Indian warfare,” students will now hear how guns and alcohol “stimulated cultural and demographic changes in some Native American societies.”
Stimulated changes, hmm? Doesn’t that sound pleasant?
All of this history hubbub reveals an important lesson about the nature of history education in the United States.
Our understanding of history isn’t static, which means teaching history is inherently political. What is – and isn’t – included in what we teach our youth about our history speaks to what we value.
And, in this case, we have chosen to value complacency and blind loyalty and over truth and progress.
Such a choice is not without consequence.
History education as propaganda is dangerous territory. We don’t want students who only know how to regurgitate what a textbook tells them. We want students who are morally conscious and socially aware.
We want students to love their country, not because they were lied to or misled.
We want students to realize they are active participants in its history with the power to make their country a better place to live.
So students, families, schools—and churches—have a role to play.
As people of faith and people who value justice and truth, we must urge our lawmakers, teachers, and the College Board to prioritize education over regurgitation.
We must send a message loud and clear if we want to ensure that the next iteration of the APUSH curriculum won’t teach students that slavery was actually a pretty good deal and the Confederate flag makes a lovely wall hanging.
Most of all, we must educate ourselves and our children about all parts of history – the good and the bad – lest we repeat the mistakes of the past.
I dedicate this post to my grandfather, Russell J. Becker, a former professor and UCC pastor who passed away last month and who taught me to value education and truth.
Katie Becker is a junior at Duke University in Durham, NC, though she is originally from Bellevue, WA and grew up attending Bellevue First Congregational Church. At Duke, Katie studies psychology and child policy research. This semester, she is traveling throughout Central America studying Spanish, social change, and liberation theology. Katie identifies as a third wave feminist and an activist for racial and gender justice, and also identities that she feels are deeply rooted in her Christianity.