Some of Nebraska’s brightest high school students are getting a skewed vision of American history in a course meant to give them a leg up on college, a Nebraska official says.
John Sieler, a Republican member of the Nebraska Board of Education, said the newly revised framework of the Advanced Placement U.S. History course portrays the United States as “the bad guys.”
“I think that the United States are the good guys,” said Sieler, who expressed his concerns during a recent board meeting.
For example, he pointed to a description of Manifest Destiny as being built “on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of cultural superiority ...”
“It makes it into a racist attitude,” he said.
William G. Thomas III, chairman of the history department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln called the criticism unfair. He said the framework deals with subjects and themes that are “at the cutting edge of historical scholarship and are relevant to today’s analysis of U.S. history.”
The course outline has spurred hot debate nationally, with conservatives claiming it misstates the motivations of early Americans, focuses on the nation’s missteps and ignores or glosses over American heroes and achievements.
The College Board, a nonprofit organization that offers AP courses for the nation’s high schools, says the new 72-page curriculum framework aligns “with contemporary scholarly perspectives on major issues in U.S. history.”
The organization says students who take AP U.S. History will “learn about the developments that have shaped U.S. history through the critical analysis of historical events and materials.”
AP says that it also supports teachers using their own curriculum to teach the course.
To teach the courses, teachers must submit their syllabi for review by college faculty.
The framework was “the product of several years of research into current best practices in history education,” the College Board says.
It provides “clearer learning objectives” and emphasizes the development of thinking skills used by historians, it says.
Thomas, who has taught AP U.S. History, said, “I think we’re a society that can take self-examination and critical analysis,” he said. “In fact, that’s what makes us great. That’s the genius of the founding.”
The history course is one of more than 30 AP courses that the College Board offers to high schools, promoting the courses as a way to “stand out in college admissions.”
Most four-year U.S. colleges and universities recognize AP in the admissions process and award credit, placement or both based on a student’s scores, the College Board says.
AP U.S. History is designed to be the equivalent of a two-semester introductory college or university course.
The course outline divides U.S. history into nine periods from pre-Columbian, marked by the date 1491, to the present.
The outline mentions slavery 29 times, imperialism 14 times, the U.S. Constitution 10 times and the Declaration of Independence twice.
Sieler says the course contradicts language in the 2012 Nebraska history standards that says America is “an exceptional nation.” That’s a line he pushed to include. It was a compromise after he failed to win support for including “American exceptionalism” in the standards.
Sieler said the outline depicts United States history as “a history of race, gender and class” that omits the ideals and ideas that the country was founded on: freedom, opportunity, heroes.
The outline doesn’t come right out and say the United States is the bad guy, he said.
“But it’s the tone and the inference, and the use of words, the pejorative,” he said.
It refers to business with terms like “exploitive, robber barons and so forth,” he said. “There’s not a mention of innovation or invention or providing jobs by investing in plants and manufacturing, railroads, the risk of capital and hope and expectation of profit, and then the reinvestment of profit in additional jobs,” he said.
Harris Payne, social studies director for the Nebraska Department of Education, declined to wade into the debate when asked if the AP U.S. History outline provides a balanced narrative.
Payne said he doesn’t believe the new course guide will prompt teachers to stop teaching Nebraska standards and instead teach U.S. history “in a negative way.”
“I’d be surprised if an AP teacher suddenly decides that they’re going to totally take a different tack with how they’re looking at American history,” he said.
He said the biggest change he noticed in the revised course is that in the multiple choice section of the exam students are required to do more analysis of primary historical documents.
“Those are good skills for kids to have,” he said. “Eventually they’re going to be sitting on juries someday as citizens and will have to examine evidence and make judgments.”
In the Millard Public Schools, teachers and administrators have worked to develop what they call an “AP culture,” encouraging kids to take the demanding classes and exams.
Millard spokeswoman Rebecca Kleeman said that in all subjects, “we teach to Millard’s standards and indicators and to the state’s standards and indicators.”
The AP U.S. History course taught in Millard follows the framework provided by the College Board, she said. But it goes beyond the framework to include Millard and state standards and indicators, she said.
Thomas said he has taught the U.S. history survey course at UNL five times in the past four years to a total of about 550 students.
“My experience and my observation is that there’s tremendous teaching on the main subjects of United States history, on the Constitution, on its importance, on the Declaration of Independence, on what it means to have a statement like ‘All men are created equal’ in a founding document,” he said.
The AP U.S. History course is a “very rigorous, deep examination of American history,” Thomas said. “And asking a simple question like, ‘Is it too critical of American history?’ ignores the depth and the breadth that that course stands for, and that teachers teach.”
On one level, he said, the controversy is about different ideas about what history is for.
He said some people would suggest that history is meant to boost American patriotism, provide a triumphant positive narrative for students, and therefore should be largely uncritical and accepting of the past.
“I don’t think history as a discipline, as a practice, as a field, is really for that,” he said. “It is for deepening our understanding of the past in all of its complexity and all of its contradictions. And we need to be critical and thoughtful about the past. We can’t just take what we like and ignore everything else.”
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