Recently, a few conservative intellectuals have raised serious questions about the College Board’s effort to develop a new curriculum for the Advanced Placement history courses. Stanley Kurtz, at National Review Online, writes that “this Framework will effectively force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a leftist perspective.” Naturally, the College Board argues that its intent is only to provide “balance,” to streamline the curriculum, and to enhance teacher flexibility. In other words, all benign matters that educators should welcome.
Are Kurtz and the other critics, like National Association of Scholars executive Peter Wood, right in their criticism? Wood argues in a preliminary report, like Kurtz, that “this newest revision, however, is radical.” The board, he notes, citing other critics, is substituting a specific curriculum in place of their previous broad frameworks, promoting a negative view of the United States, and erasing major figures (the Founding Fathers, of course) from American history.
Wood is concerned that “perhaps more than other parts of the college curriculum,” the board is turning history “into a platform for political advocacy and for animus against traditional American values.” Moreover, he thinks that the “College Board has turned AP U.S. History into a briefing document on progressive and leftist views of the American past. It is something that weaves together a vaguely Marxist or at least materialist reading of the key events with the whole litany of identity group grievances.”
We have seen this particularly in the books of Howard Zinn and his followers, and in the book and video series on World War II and the Cold War by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick. And, as we know, their works are widely adopted in the assigned readings of many high school teachers and college professors. Within the academy, there has also been a widespread adoption of monographs that are based on race, class and gender to the exclusion of the old type of political history that once exemplified the best the profession had to offer.
These charges have led to an attack on the board’s critics, as revealed in this harsh column in the Los Angeles Times by columnist Michael Hiltzik. Its blaring headline reads: “The right wing steps up its attack on the teaching of U.S. history.” Rather than address the substance of the claims made by critics like Wood and Kurtz, Hiltzik offers his readers a standard left-wing McCarthyite smear, arguing that it is nothing less than “an anti-intellectual assault.” He accuses Kurtz of declaring that a “grand conspiracy” exists made up of left-leaning history professors to emasculate their profession by belying the concept of “American exceptionalism.” (Kurtz’s answer to Hiltzik can be found here.)
To weigh the accuracy of the claims made by Kurtz and Wood, I read the College Board report. As a historian of recent America, 1900 to the present, and U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century, I evaluated what the curriculum offers in the area of my own expertise. I’ll start with Period 7, 1890-1945. Take as an example how it frames questions about Progressivism and the New Deal. The report puts it this way:
Progressive reformers responded to economic instability, social inequality, and political corruption by calling for government intervention in the economy, expanded democracy, greater social justice, and conservation of natural resources.
There is no indication that Progressive reform actually may have been instituted by corporate regulators for their own benefit, at the expense of small manufacturers and producers. This argument, by historians like Gabriel Kolko, James Weinstein and Martin J.Sklar, whose pioneering work changed the standard view of progressivism, is not even raised as an alternative way to comprehend the Progressive era. The paragraph, as structured, reflects the old traditional left/liberal view of the Progressive Era, and takes it as a given.