AP U.S. History: Why “Historical Thinking” Is Controversial

In fourteen hundred ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue. […]

October 12 their dream came true, / You never saw a happier crew!

Last week, students throughout the country took the day off on Monday in honor of Columbus Day, one of several federal holidays that over the years has increasingly come under public scrutiny. The criticism is warranted: For one, even the novice student of history may recall that Christopher Columbus did not actually land on the continent of North America, but rather in the Bahamas. And that other Europeans likely made the trip before him. Also, Native Americans.

The story of America is a sweeping tale filled with these grand heroes, epic battles, and the continuing struggle for the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But American history is also full of inconvenient truths pointing out the fallibility of our heroes and the injustices perpetrated throughout the course of building this nation. For critical thinkers, considering America’s past sins are an opportunity to reflect upon the promises this country has made to its citizens, and the ways that it might do better to meet those promises for everyone. But for those who would rather fit U.S. History into a predefined triumphalist narrative, past sins are embarrassments to hide.

This tension between myth and reality, as Vox’s Libby Nelson pointed out last week, has long been a flashpoint for debate on how history is taught in public schools. Earlier this fall when the College Board—the organization that produces the advanced placement (AP) high school assessments, in addition to the SAT and PSAT—released a new framework for their AP U.S. History course, that flashpoint was quickly ignited on the national stage. Far from dethroning the Common Core State Standards as the most controversial issue in education, as Nelson suggested, this recent controversy proceeds directly from the critical thinking skills emphasized by the Common Core.

The spark was lit when the Republican National Committee (RNC), in a resolution concerning the framework, said that the College Board’s update “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation's history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects." From there, the fire spread as conservative commentators and media outlets denounced the changes as unpatriotic, anti-American, and worse: Ben Carson, potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate and frequent contributor to Fox News, indicated that students exposed to the new course framework would be ready to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Acting on these public denouncements, a local school board member in Jefferson County, Colorado submitted a proposal to formally review school curricula and materials, emphasizing that materials “should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.” The proposal indicates that one of the initial projects would be a review of the new AP U.S. History framework. (Since the proposal was submitted, Jefferson County students and teachers have been protesting the board’s proposed actions as a potential avenue for censorship.)

While the public discourse has largely focused on the framework's inclusion or omission of names and events, the real issue is with a larger feature of the framework's redesign.

Matthew Pinsker, a professor of history and consultant on the new AP framework (as well as a fellow at New America), says that the biggest change to the framework—though the least talked about—is its new emphasis on historical thinking skills: chronological reasoning; comparison and contextualization; crafting historical arguments from historical evidence; and historical interpretation and synthesis. These historical thinking skills bear a striking resemblance to the Common Core’s standards for reading informational texts, including analyzing a complex sequence of events, analyzing multiple sources of information, and evaluating the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts.

Pinsker points out that the AP framework’s “new emphasis on historical thinking skills (like how to read a primary source) is one that should be embraced by all sides.” But as with the Common Core, this emphasis on critical thinking skills is actually the heart of the issue with the new AP U.S. History framework.

Chester E. Finn, Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Fordham Institute, wrote earlier this fall that we should be asking ourselves if high school students really aught to be learning about these inconvenient truths, or as he calls it: “the collegiate version of U.S. history—warts and all, with emphasis on the warts [emphasis added].”  Finn—ironically, one of the leading conservative voices supporting the new college- and career-readiness standards—rhetorically asks if, instead of focusing on historical thinking, “Might it not be more important for [students] to internalize basic chronology, fundamental events, key people, and major accomplishments than to agonize about the injustices and downtrodden of bygone years?”

It must be quite the intellectual tightrope act: advocating for teaching critical thinking skills while simultaneously arguing that students need not apply those skills to their studies.

As James Grossman, director of the American Historical Association, wrote in the New York Times, “Navigating the tension between patriotic inspiration and historical thinking, between respectful veneration and critical engagement, is an especially difficult task.” In his estimation, what the RNC calls ‘negative aspects’ of American history have made our story "more complex, unsettling, provocative and compelling." But asking students to navigate this tension and think critically about American History is exactly the sort of thing the Common Core calls for.

Learning half-truths about historical figures like Columbus through bad poetry may have been tolerable elementary school fare with state standards of the past, but today’s students should be building from a foundation of historical knowledge that is firmly rooted in reality, not mythology. Today’s high school students, who are preparing not only for college and careers but a lifetime of civic engagement, should certainly be taught more than a timeline of dates, names, and events. While some may find this unsettling, I suspect students will find our history's complexities much more compelling."


Lindsey Tepe is a senior policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Learning Technologies project and PreK-12 team, where she focuses primarily on innovation and new technologies in public schools.