US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

On Thursday, the College Board released its new standards for Advanced Placement U.S. History, the course that high-achieving high school students take in order to prepare for college history classes. The new standards were the result of a year-long battle between the College Board and conservative critics, who argued that the 2014 standards promoted what Dinesh D'Souza calls the "shame narrative" of American history. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution calling the new standards "a radically revisionist view of American history." Not to be outdone, Ben Carson, now a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said that once students were exposed to the College Board version of history, "they'd be ready to sign up for [the Islamic State group]."

As someone who teaches U.S. history and grades Advanced Placement exams, I have two thoughts about this recent dust-up. First, conservatives are mostly wrong about the standards, because they are confusing the intellectual and the ideological. And second, the right should nonetheless continue to engage in the debate over what American history means, and how best to tell the story of our nation's past.

The battle between conservatives and the College Board has been raging for more than year, spearheaded by National Review writer Stanley Kurtz. But it has its origins in the culture wars of the early 1990s, when conservatives and liberals faced off over public school teaching standards. Conservatives won that war, in part because they won over Texas. Because the market for high school textbooks in Texas is so large, textbook companies focus on books that meet the state's more conservative standards. In that way, Texas shapes much of the national textbook market — and much of what is taught in primary and secondary school history classes.

Those history wars are key to understanding the current battles. College professors assume their students have been taught a fairly straightforward, triumphalist version of American history. As a result, in introductory courses they work to complicate that story, to help students understand why, for example, a black colonist during the Revolutionary War may have preferred to side with the British, who promised him freedom, or why the promise of equality may have rung hollow for American women.

Moreover, history professors do not ignore America's positive attributes. One of the most popular college textbooks, Eric Foner's "Give Me Liberty!", shows that an examination of America's historic errors does not preclude an emphasis on the country's unique values. Foner traces the story of American freedom from colonial times to the present. True, he shows how the nation repeatedly failed to live up to the claim that "all men are created equal." But he also shows how that promise of universal equality created opportunities for excluded groups to lobby for recognition of their own rights.

History professors teach these more complex versions of history because college courses are not civics lessons. They are an attempt to introduce students to the practice of history, to the competing stories that historians tell, to the ways historians argue about the past. We don't teach American exceptionalism, we teach about American exceptionalism. And that's the way it should be, because it allows us to expose students to the very best historical scholarship.

So the right is wrong in its caricature of U.S. history teaching. If high school students are going to test out of college history classes — something that the AP History test allows them to do — they need to demonstrate an awareness of how historians interpret the past. And the people who judge their ability to do that are trained historians, not political partisans.

Of course, history is more than an academic discipline. It is the story we tell about our nation's past, about who we are as a people. And conservatives should remain fully engaged in that debate, as every American should. Academic historians should listen carefully to groups who claim their stories are being excluded. But the history taught in college classrooms should ultimately be judged by the standards of the profession, so that college history courses remain the products of professionals, and not the playthings of partisans. 

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report