Colorado’s AP History Controversy

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56 Responses

  1. Roger says:

    The narratives we share on history are extremely normative. I recently grabbed my grandson’s American history textbook and was amazed at the way it was spun to support various narratives. Sometimes it was a matter of explanation (for example the causes of the Great Depression) at other times it was a matter of what is being emphasized (transgressions or accomplishments?).

    Now, there is certainly a benefit to a shared narrative within society, supporting common norms, values and paradigms. But there is also a value to having variety and experimentation and choice in these matters. My guess is classical liberals line up around parental choice and experimentation and competition, conservatives around coercive standardization around their values, and the left around coercive standardization around their values.Report

    • Kim in reply to Roger says:

      My husband, who grew up in a rather conservative district, had a Texan textbook.
      So naturally when we went to Austin, we had to visit the capital.
      (It’s appropriately “Texan Bombastic” style. If you get a chance, visit Pennsylvania’s… it’s actually a lot more awesome.)Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Kim says:

        The Pennsylvania State Capitol is a very nice piece of architecture. What I have never figured out is the pillars on either side of State Street just east of the capitol complex. As you drive westbound on State St. crossing the bridge over the rail yard you see the capitol dome framed by two pillars that look like they were designed by Albert Speer. It is very weird.

        Also, Harrisburg is a dump. But the site of the minor league ballpark on the island in the Susquehanna is awesome!Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        Those are part of the bridge over the railyard… (U Pitt’s bridge has panthers on its ends).
        I do have to say that they do frame the capital nicely… although, you’re right, they’re really a bit weird.Report

    • Lyle in reply to Roger says:

      Actually if one can get access look at high school history texts used every thirty years or so. You will be amazed in the changes. For example I suspect that if you go back 100 years you will find the meme of the only good native american is a dead native american exists in the books. (Based upon books by Teddy Roosevelt and his attitude). Let alone go to books used in the south from 150 to 50 years ago on the “War of Northern Aggression” or as the north called it the Civil War. (recall it was 1964 before Vicksburg, MS celebrated the 4th of July). Of course IMHO the trick is to have students read the popular historical literature such as David McCullogh and others. Indeed book reports on such books would be a good way to get diversity of opinion.
      Let alone take world history books from the UK 100 years ago and see how they deal with the American Revolution, or compare the treatment of the French Revolution between UK and French history books 100 years ago.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Lyle says:

        I have my five volume “Everybody’s ‘Cylopedia” from 1912. “A Concise and Accurate Compilation of the World’s Knowledge”, it brags.

        I’ve no reason to believe that history books written yesterday are any more accurate.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Lyle says:

        @jaybird Well, there is an argument to be made that they might be. From what I’ve gathered from my sister, there are three big differences between history as a discipline now and history 100 years ago.

        The first is that it does not need to be government approved in the way that it did then.

        The second is that there is more of an amalgam of different voices that leads to a less sure consensus, and less of a unified, agreed-upon narrative than was more typically the case back then.

        The third is that over the past two generations, there has been a move (controversial at its beginning) to study and give weight to original source materials that were not written by famous people. So today while we still might highly value, say, John Tyler’s observations of what the things that shaped the landscape in 1840, we also tend to give some weight to both Letitia Tyler’s and Julia Tyler’s observations, as well as their maids’, and those that owned or worked in shops and businesses in Virginia.

        So history may still be just as accurate/inaccurate as it was in 1912, but I do suspect that these differences push scholarship towards greater accuracy, not away form it.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Lyle says:

        I suspect that, as history has evolved in recent years, it will continue to do so.

        The first is that it does not need to be government approved in the way that it did then.

        My suspicion is that there is a different approval board that is no less powerful for it not being governmental. Another suspicion I have is that while this approval board might evolve, it ain’t going anywhere.

        The second is that there is more of an amalgam of different voices that leads to a less sure consensus, and less of a unified, agreed-upon narrative than was more typically the case back then.

        If there is less certainty about the narrative, I’ve not experienced such a thing. The first example to come to mind is the War Between Brothers. If anything, it seems to me that there is a greater consensus and narrative today than there was even when I was in school… let alone what must have been taught in 1912.

        study and give weight to original source materials that were not written by famous people

        Dude, I absolutely *LOVE* this tendency. But I think I’ve noticed that it’s usually in service to the current fashionable narrative. Maybe I’m wrong about that.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Lyle says:

        @jaybird That may all be so, and I certainly lack the expertise to either quibble or have that much confidence in what I’m saying.

        Still, though, it’s hard to always tease out what’s politically driven and what isn’t.

        For example, right now I’m reading The Half Has Never Been Told, which largely disputes the long-held notion that slavery was already in a state of decline and that for economic reasons the South was about to throw in the whole owning people towel pretty soon anyway.

        His argument, I know, gets pegged as liberal blame-AMerica-first politics. But you read it, and all the data is there. Not data as in quoting some guy who said something, but the data of number of slaves owned, the geographic expansion os slavery, the revenues of slave-driven companies, the GDP provided by the slave states with cotton, the profit margins of slave holders vs. non-slave holders… I mean, there’s a lot of fucking data there.

        At what point does that become less “liberal brainwashing” and more “established fact?” For that matter, at what point did Columbus’s own diaries where he talked about investing in the slave trade stop being “revisionist lies meant to make America look bad?”

        Whenever that point is, it’s hard to review all of those numbers fro Half Has Never Been Told in context and say, “Edward Baptist’s narrative is just as inaccurate as the narrative from 1912; it’s all just politics.”Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Lyle says:

        Dunno. Is there a point at which you think we’ll finally be able to say “okay, we’ve hammered down what happened”?

        I mean, to the degree of certainty that we have about… oh… what would be a good example of historical data that we have certainty about? Vietnam? WWII? WWI? The War Of 1812? If we’re too North America centric, there, how’s about Napoleon?Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Lyle says:

        I think there is, yes, although I will be he first to admit I lack the background, learning or scholarship to know where exactly that point is.

        I mean, otherwise a decision to teach kids that the Holocaust never happened because you hate Israel is the intellectual equivalence of making an educated guess about which of the voluminous reasons that the Great Depression occurred was the biggest.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Lyle says:

        If we can get enough viewpoints compared to holocaust denial, surely the amalgam of different voices that leads to a less unified, agreed-upon narrative will follow shortly thereafter.Report

      • Lyle in reply to Lyle says:

        It was a different level of government that did the approving in 1912, basically the local school boards, unless the state bought the textbook, when it was the state.
        Second IMHO it takes a few centuries for history to settle down, until everyone that participated, or heard first hand stories about the event has died. (Witness 100 years in Vicksburg by 1964 it was at most grandchildren who where still around, typically of folks who were children in 1864).

        As another example I have a 1960 Britannica, which was written from about 1922 onwards, good bits of which would not be politically correct today.Report

  2. Kolohe says:

    “?All of that said, the College Board does seem to put local school boards in a bit of a bind. The College Board has an effective monopoly on the means by which high-school students can get college credits or placement that are recognized by a large number of different schools”

    This is defining ‘monopoly’ down, in my opinion. Like you said, Advanced Placement is a brand name for a particular type of honors course. School boards are free to create any type of honors course they wish (I’m sure Hillsdale College is looking for more marks programs to mentor).

    Nobody else has stepped up to compete with AP (except for kind of the International Baccalaureate folks) because it works pretty well. (sure, there’s probably first mover advantage, but you can compete the College Board if you really want to – i.e. SAT vs ACT). As you say, keeping everything in check is the small c conservative impulse (by parents) to not mess with the system that works well enough.Report

  3. James Hanley says:

    the sainthood of the Founding Fathers, and proper respect for authority.

    The impossibility of maximizing both values simultaneously has obviously escaped the Board member’s attention.

    This kind of thing hits me in my wheelhouse because I teach American Government every semester. Very frequently I get reviews that say “Dr. Hanley shouldn’t criticize the police they’re putting their lives on the line for us,” or some such. I use a book that puts American Government into comparative perspective, and emphasizes the effects of choosing one structure over another, which results in a few students complaining that the book is criticizing America.

    But there are always idiots who think that education is about learning what all of us already believe, rather than about learning to think about things.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to James Hanley says:

      The impossibility of maximizing both values simultaneously

      I think they do it by basically saying this:

      Yes the Founding Fathers practiced civil disobedience to revolt against the crown, and that was awesome! However, kids these days are ignorant schlubs who don’t know how to do it right, and thus should be discouraged from actually trying it, since they’ll just make a mess of things and probably screw up my daily commute.Report

    • NobAkimoto in reply to James Hanley says:

      Please tell me, at least, that you teach your students that Jean Jacques Rousseau was a begetter of false babies.Report

  4. Burt Likko says:

    I work with a high school history teacher for my mock trial coaching. I’ve noticed that it’s only October and he’s already on to integration in the late 1940’s and last week they were doing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I inquired about this, and it turns out that other than the Civil War, they pretty much skipped colonization, and the nineteenth century, and almost all of the class is spent in the twentieth, with the emphasis being on the second half of the twentieth century.

    Is this normal?Report

    • James K in reply to Burt Likko says:


      It scarcely seems like history at all if the bulk of the class is still within living memory.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Burt Likko says:

      It largely mirrors what they’ve done here in Portland, but it has more to do with budget issues. As the school day keeps getting shortened, one of the ways they’ve “downsized” (at least here) is to make History, Social Studies and Language Arts into a kind of single Core Curriculum thing. By necessity, I assume it needs to leave out a lot of stuff that I remember learning in high school.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I generally think that urban school districts are the most likely to be screwed over because of the way school funding is generally done in the U.S.

        Property taxes for school budgets are a bad idea.

        Cities are just too large and chaotic for the American way of funding schools.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        We don’t really have that kind of urban/rural divide in terms of funding.

        Because of the Oregon Constitution, all of the money for education is divided at the State level, and you can’t have rural schools funded different from urban ones.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        It’s not as though rural areas have a particularly advantage when it comes to property taxes. Property in ruralia is cheap. Local property tax funding mostly benefits wealthy enclaves in the suburbs and exurbs, as near as I can tell.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Because of the Oregon Constitution, all of the money for education is divided at the State level, and you can’t have rural schools funded different from urban ones.

        We have that rule too, but it only applies to state money and not local money.

        This yields weird results.

        Property tax money is collected at the county level but it goes up to the state and then gets parceled out and sent back. Localities can pass their own parcel taxes and put that money directly into their school district, and the presence of those funds doesn’t change the funding model from Sacramento, which is entirely built on attendance and enrollment.

        The attendance and enrollment model fundamentally impacts socially disadvantaged school populations, so already a school in a poor area that has 300 kids enrolled will probably get less money than a school in a rich area that has 300 kids enrolled, because the rich area kids will have better attendance rates.

        Then you look at parcel taxes, donations, parent involvement, annual funds, etc., and that widens the gap further.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I generally think that urban school districts are the most likely to be screwed over because of the way school funding is generally done in the U.S.

        In many (most?) states, this is becoming less and less true. IIRC from my time working for the Colorado legislature, moneys from the state General Fund and federal government account for a bit over half of all K-12 funding in the state. In some of the poorest rural districts ~80% of the budget comes from those sources.

        If you compare state budgets in 1964 vs 2014 for a “typical” state, one of the two things that really jumps out is how K-12 funding has gone from a relatively small portion to the largest single item in the GF budget (in Colorado, K-12 is about 42% of all GF spending).Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

      When I took American History in High School (1996-1997), we studied The Colonies through the Constitution and then skipped to the lead up to the Civil War and went until about Vietnam or so.

      So we skipped the early Republic, Lewis and Clark, the Age of Jackson, the no-nothings, etc.

      You can probably spend a good two years in high school teaching American History. This would take away time from studying European History (which is going to be a rush), not to mention the history of the non-Western World. This is how my history went in High School from 1994-1998.

      Global Studies I: Latin America, Asia, and Africa

      Global Studies II: European History from the Greeks until WWII or so. I do remember covering the English Civil War and Restoration.

      American History: Described above

      Integration of Knowledge: An Honors Course which was essentially introduction to western philosophy.

      I wonder if it makes sense to ditch the idea of survey courses and just do something more college like and have it broken into blocks of time that can be dealt with in detail.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Burt Likko says:

      All I know is that my daughter’s taking IB History and she’s complaining that she’s learning about the Civil War for the 4th or 5th time, and not learning anything new about it.

      I don’t think she knows much about the founding.Report

      • It’s funny. Thinking back, I thought that we learned about pre-CW history a lot leading up to high school, and then in high school got the Civil War and post-CW. But having thought about it, I think that there is a big gaping hole from about 1810 to 1860. We did learn about the colonists, and we did learn about the Revolution, I do remember learning about the Louisiana Purchase… but if I learned anything from Madison to Buchanan, I’m not sure what (beyond a tip to Manifest Destiny, but I learned about James K Polk from a They Might Be Giants song.

        Looking over the state’s current curriculum (which may or may not have been place at the time), the only American History required, apparently, is 1877 to current.Report

      • Looking over the state’s current curriculum (which may or may not have been place at the time), the only American History required, apparently, is 1877 to current.

        I have no idea what the currently required material is for American History in the district where I took it so very long ago, but I know that we covered the Revolutionary War because my research project was medical care on Revolutionary period privateers. Which turned out to be a fairly grotesque subject, and left me wondering how the hell any sailor ever survived long enough to be fitted for a peg leg.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to James Hanley says:

        I’ll add my voice to what @will-truman says here.

        On the advice of a post by Ta-nehesi Coates, I read What God Hath Wrought last year. I was pretty stunned at how many things happened during that time that I had never heard about. (e.g.: Our going to wars with both the Republic of Canada and China.)

        It also stumbled upon quotes from my sister, which was pretty damn cool.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        I think that there is a big gaping hole from about 1810 to 1860

        Well, @will-truman, that whole Mexican War thing is a bit uncomfortable to boast about.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Burt Likko says:


      As @will-truman says below, I think a standard approach is that, for some reason, colonial America and the Revolution and Founding are covered in around 8th grade. Not everywhere, but pretty often. I definitely don’t remember studying them in high school, but do remember studying them then. I can’t remember where we picked up with American history when I took it in high school, but it was definititel Civil-War-ish.

      This does seem unfortunate. I remember finding that material boring as hell when I studied it, and now it’s fascinating to me. (But then history is generally the most fascinating of subjects to me now). That could have been the teacher or the materials she used, but it could also just be the age I was at. It seems like for the material to have a chance of sparking interest in kids, they have to have a certain degree of curiosity about that kind of subject and have learned a number of learning techniques that most middle school kids haven’t developed yet.

      OTOH, maybe this guy really was supposed to cover that era this semester and actually did go through it ridiculously fast. But if he’s teaching a course that actually is supposed to proceed from colonial times through the twentieth century in America to high school kids, it seem like you might as well dispense with the idea that anything will be covered with any depths – that is, unless instructors make the kinds of choices about what to emphasize that your co-instructor may have made.Report

    • Alan Scott in reply to Burt Likko says:

      @burt-likko , is the class you’re working with an AP class?

      Because while the AP US history test includes material from Columbus to the present day, the California history standards specify that 11th grade history should be focused on the 20th century. This is to avoid that constantly re-learning about the civil war issue that @james-hanley ‘s daughter is dealing with. Of course, that means that AP courses in California are asked to serve two different masters with two different sets of demands. I know that the AP history course I took in 11th grade was one of my least favorite, and I suspect that those conflicting demands are one of the reasons why.

      The California history/social-studies standards can be found here, but in short, it goes like this:

      4th: California History
      5th: US History, 13th-18th century
      6th: World History, prehistory-3rd century
      7th: World History, 4th century – 18th century
      8th: US History, 18th-19th century
      10th: World History, 18th century – present
      11th: US History, 20th century
      12th: US GovernmentReport

  5. Saul Degraw says:

    I generally think the idea of electing the local or state-wide school board is a matter of too much democracy and local control. New York State controls this a little bit by having a Board of Regents and state-wide finals. That being said, I think conservatives have generally been much better than liberals on this area of the culture war and use local school boards to get their ideas spread and as proving grounds for future leaders. Liberals seem to generally dominate school boards in very liberals areas where conservatives are an endangered species but nowhere else.

    That being said, I am not sure we need a national standard for teaching history because the country is vast and wide and there is probably no way that New York and South Carolina are going to agree on how to teach the Civil War and Reconstruction. There is also local history which should be taught in different areas. There is a much-loved 4th grade project in California about the Missions which apparently produces a nostalgic glow in anyone who ever did the project. This is rather irrelevant if you grew up in the Northeast. We learned about the Erie Canal, and Ellis Island, and How the Other Half Lived, and Triangle shirtwaist fire company.

    History is inherently political and you can’t teach it without upsetting some people. The Jefferson County School Board (and many on the Right) are wearing their propaganda on their sleeves.Report

    • Being a Western state, Colorado has rather more democracy than a lot of older states. Local school boards are enormously powerful within their domain (in contrast, counties are much more limited). Citizen-initiated statutes and constitutional amendments are easy (and it’s no harder to get an amendment on the ballot than a statute, so our state constitution has grown to ridiculous size). Recalls are relatively easy. Other than bills with an emergency clause, bills don’t go into effect without allowing a time for citizens to gather signatures and convert the bill to a referendum. I’ve mentioned the taxpayers bill of rights (TABOR) in the past, which removed the state/local governments’ power to increase tax rates or create a new tax without a vote of the people.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “I generally think the idea of electing the local or state-wide school board is a matter of too much democracy and local control. ”

      Which is a nice thought until President Jeb Bush nominates a creationist to be Secretary of Education to mollify the base. And why think so small – why not make the educational establishment only answerable to a world organization – the final victory of the Tiger Mom.

      (also, its worth noting that getting rid of elected school boards was something Richmond did when some Virginia counties tried to end segregated schools.Report

    • I am sympathetic to this argument as far as local districts go. But for the reasons Kolohe mentions, as well as you, I tend to think it better as mostly a state issue rather than a national one.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:

        Education should probably be a state issue. I don’t think it should be something that there is direct control over though via elections.Report

      • I’m not sure how you square those two parts. State control* means state elections. The same applies nationally, for that matter. I don’t know how you take elections out of it.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:


        I think it should maybe be done like a non-partisan voting commission. Two Democrats, Two Republicans, and someone non-partisan. They can be picked by the governor and approved by the state legislature and serve terms of X years.Report

    • …are wearing their propaganda on their sleeves.

      There was an old Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown says, after watching Lucy explain something to Linus, “Linus will have to go to school twice as long as everyone else because it will take him 12 years just to unlearn everything Lucy has taught him.” The College Board revised AP US History for this school year based on feedback from the colleges and universities. There’s a part of me that thinks the majority on the Jefferson County school board are setting out to intentionally handicap their college-bound students, that they have to know that, and they just don’t care.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I’m reminded of the scene in Inherent the Wind where a businessman pleads that he hates evolution as much as everybody else in the room but he wants his to be able to go to Yale.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      At this point, history courses should be focused on skills, not content. There is probably some content we’ll want students nationwide to have but overall a skills-based approach should leave enough room content wise for local areas to adjust as necessary.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Kazzy says:

        That’s some of the changes that were made to the AP US History test for this year: fewer multiple choice names and dates, more short- and long-form writing. With content adjustments to reflect less emphasis on names and dates, more on why things happened or what the consequences of the decisions were. One of the College Board people made the claim that you could disagree with a lot of the content of the course and still score well on the test, if you could make organized arguments for your point of view.Report

  6. Chris says:

    Thank you for explaining this.Report

  7. Michael Cain says:

    Sigh… and as of last week, we have a member of the Colorado State Board of Education who supports American exceptionalism by telling us that “we gave up slavery voluntarily.” Her district is largely the rural Great Plains counties that make up the eastern third (or so) of the state, including ten of the counties that wanted away from the Front Range urban corridor enough to run secede-from-Colorado feelers on the ballot last year. Some days I think they do this stuff just to piss me off.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Clee’s Law.Report

    • Alan Scott in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Perhaps I’m being inappropriately anti-democratic and paternalistic about this, but here goes:

      This is why I’m glad these people will never actually get their own state.

      Generally, its why I favor centralized, rather than localized control over education. The law of large numbers keeps crazy in check, whatever a region’s particularly crazy might be.Report

      • This is why I’m glad these people will never actually get their own state.

        I did a hypothetical state carved out of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska that avoided any hint of an urban area here, down near the bottom. It would be poor. It would struggle to fund roads and K-12 schools. People would have to go out-of-state for a lot of advanced health care. All of the problems they have today with shrinking populations and tax bases would remain, only worse. I’ve had a chance to speak with one of the organizers of Colorado’s “51st State” movement (they’re a registered non-profit so they can lobby the legislature as a group). As near as I can tell, the guy had no idea just how many “voluntary” state/federal programs aren’t voluntary in practice, and how much it costs to put together the infrastructure to support all of that.Report

  8. Rufus F. says:

    I wish there were Nietzschean board members arguing to only teach history that is beneficial to the living of life.Report

  9. Michelle says:

    Thanks for your on-the-ground recap of the ongoing Colorado AP saga. I see this effort (as well as the effort going on in Texas) as part of the conservative impulse to “reright” American history from what they view as the leftward drift of historiography since the 1960s. Hence the emphasis on American exceptionalism and hagiography of the Founders, the downplaying of the civil war, labor unions, and civil disobedience. It’s the Dinesh D’Souzaization of history.Report